Shelter From The Storm: Tent City returns to downtown Toledo

Toledo Local Features  |  10/23/2013

Ken Leslie doesn't just want to be involved with charity, he wants to form a connection. His brainchild, Tent City ? which has been going strong since 1990 ? is a weekend-long think tank, festival, social experiment and service that builds temporary shelters in Civic Center, aiming to create a lasting bond between outreach programs, volunteers and those who are currently living on the street. Food, clothing, hygiene kits and haircuts are provided, but with music, planned activities and an activist walk, it has more of a  bright, everyone's-welcome fun-loving-type vibe than some sort of a dry, in-and-out clinic. Social impact has as much to do with breaking down barriers and forming friendships as it does with providing tangible items. And Tent City realizes the importance of both. Before Tent City materializes this weekend ? October 25, 26 and 27 ? caught up with Leslie to talk about how it all got started and why John Mellencamp helped. 

On why he started Tent City in 1990. 

I was a professional comedian, traveling around and making people laugh. I saw more and more families on the street. I read a statistic here in Toledo that 60 percent of people living on the street in Toledo were families with children and that made me decide to act and we started the first Tent City. 

On the friendly atmosphere of Tent City. 

Our attitude with all of the volunteers is in order to volunteer you have to have a "fun-datory" attitude. Which was a word coined by one of our UT volunteers. Fun is mandatory. Rather than saying, 'Oh, you poor man, here's your pair of gloves,' we're like, 'Yo, what's up, catch these gloves.' The approach is more uplifting. And once you make someone laugh, they're begun that road.

On never giving up on a person. 

There is a lady that came down to Tent City five years ago and we kicked her out, because she was stealing stuff. She was an addict. But, three years ago, we just surrounded her with this love. We really liked her, but, at times, she was unbearable. And, that year, when we surrounded her, she had some sort of breakdown and became one of the nicest people we know. And last year, she was the co-chair of the registration. So, when you can see someone go from a person that you never really want around to someone you look forward to hanging out with is a miraculous change. This is why we do what we do.

On how John Mellencamp influenced the non-profit behind Tent City, 1Matters.

John Mellencamp was one of the guys ? actually the guy ? who made 1Matters a reality. He came down to Tent City and he was blown away. It was supposed to be a 10-minute cruise-through and he ended up hanging out for an hour talking to everybody. He invited a bunch of people to his show that night [at the Seagate Center]. One person came back after the show and said, 'Ken, John talked to us on the stage and said that we really do matter.' And that was actually the moment that 1Matters was created.

Tent City takes place on October 25, 26 and 27 at the Civic Center Mall in Downtown Toledo. On Friday, October 25 at 6pm there will be a one mile walk that embarks from Promenade Park to support unhoused veterans. For more information, visit:

Here's a photo from last year's walk...

Check out this promotional video...