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Mellencamp returns to Tent City event

Singer leads annual walk for homeless

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    Al Jeremy of Toledo receives a plate of hot food served by volunteers of Tent City at Civic Center Mall in downtown Toledo. The annual event brings the homeless and service agencies together.

    THE BLADE/NICK THOMAS
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    Tent City honorary mayor John Mellencamp speaks before the Walk to End Veteran Homelessness at the Civic Center Mall in Downtown Toledo.

    The Blade/Nick Thomas
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    The Walk to End Veteran Homelessness proceeds down 13th street as part of the annual Tent City observance by 1Matters and Veterans Matter.

    THE BLADE/NICK THOMAS
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John Mellencamp’s much-anticipated return to Toledo’s Tent City went off without a hitch Friday night before the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame singer-songwriter performed another sold-out concert at the Stranahan Theater, although his latest visit was shorter and a bit more subdued because he was battling a cold.

Mr. Mellencamp is this year’s honorary mayor of Tent City — the annual event that brings the city’s homeless and service agencies together for a weekend camp-out. Created in 1990, Tent City is in the heart of downtown, miles from the theater in the southwest part of the city where Mr. Mellencamp performed Friday night and in 2007.

During his first visit nine years ago, Mr. Mellencamp was so impressed by what he saw at Tent City he stopped at one point during his show and told people in the audience — about 60 of whom were homeless residents who were allowed in free — never to forget that everyone matters.

PHOTO GALLERY: John Mellencamp vists Tent City in Toledo

Out of that, homeless advocate Ken Leslie created the group 1Matters and, in 2012, its splinter group, Veterans Matter. In only four years, the latter has helped set up more than 1,200 formerly homeless veterans into housing in at least 12 states by paying their security deposit and first month’s rent.

This year’s Tent City is having a special focus on homeless veterans.

After visiting noted rock photographer-tour manager Harry Sandler’s exhibit at Toledo School for the Arts, Mr. Mellencamp met briefly with about six veterans inside the veterans-services tent at Tent City.

Then he kicked off the event’s mile-long walk with words of praise for volunteers helping support those in need.

Mr. Mellencamp was introduced as an ordinary guy, a kid from a small Indiana town lucky enough to hit the big time.

But he said in a humble tone that life didn’t always come easy for him, as it doesn’t for a lot of Americans from modest backgrounds. He said a lot of hard work, perseverance, and a few breaks along the way allowed him to succeed.

“My experience is I’ve always had to wait, I’ve always had to look, I’ve always had to work, I’ve always had to not give up,” he told the crowd. “That’s pretty much the way I’ve lived. 

“... You should all be proud of yourselves for even being here.”

While trying to preserve what was left of his raspy, sore throat for the concert, he left attendees with these words of inspiration on a chilly night: “Keep a little sunshine on your face. It’ll make you feel better during your [troubling] moments.”

About 500 people participated in the walk, one of the larger turnouts.

They were led by six children carrying a banner which read “Walk to End Veteran Homelessness.”

This year’s Tent City attendees include Veronica Mora, 33, of Perrysburg, president of Gold Star Wives of America, Inc.’s Toledo chapter, whose husband, Army Sgt. Arthur Mora, Jr., was killed in combat in Iraq on Oct. 19, 2005.

“As a surviving spouse, it is incredibly disheartening to know there’s even one homeless veteran,” she told The Blade. “I wish we had more people like John Mellencamp.”

She added she has been active with Veterans Matter since May, 2015.

“The main reason I got involved was because I was cheated out of my homecoming with my husband. I got a flag-draped coffin instead,” she said.

Ms. Mora told the newspaper she and her husband had three children, Olivia, now 15, Celina, now 12, and Christopher, now 11, who was born when her husband was in Iraq. Sergeant Mora died at age 23 when Christopher was only eight days old.

Now she feels she is strengthening her bond with her late husband whenever Veterans Matter secures housing for another homeless veteran, she said.

Lt. Haraz N. Ghanbari, University of Toledo military/​veteran affairs director, told The Blade work by groups such as Veterans Matter is “immeasurable.”

“No one who has served this country should ever have to call the streets their home,” Lieutenant Ghanbari said. “I want to do everything I can to let people know compassion.”

Bill Zornow, 65, of Temperance, who served in Europe during the Vietnam War, said it’s an “awesome feeling” to help those in need.

Shawn Dowling, a coordinator at VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System, said Veterans Matter has significantly reduced waiting time for homeless veterans, from a matter of months to days.

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com, 419-724-6079, or via Twitter @ecowriterohio.

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