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Toledo Blade: Rocker John Mellencamp's Message of Dignity for the Homeless Still Resonates
10.22.2010 - Canadian Press By David Tom Henry

What could have been just another celebrity-in, celebrity-out event for Toledo turned into something special in November, 2007, when singer-songwriter John Mellencamp paused at one point during his sold-out show at the SeaGate Centre to remind people that everyone matters.

Nobody knows why his simple message of dignity resonated so strongly. After all, people can go through the history of rock, pop, country, blues, and folk music, and find an all-star cast of other high-profile musicians who have preached empathy for the poor, from Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, B.B. King, Harry Connick, Jr., and Willie Nelson.

Maybe it was Mr. Mellencamp's Indiana upbringing and his Midwestern ties.

Maybe it was his incognito visit to Toledo's annual Tent City event a few hours before that show where, inside a quiet trailer, he heard hard-luck stories of four Toledoans who'd put their lives back together.

He said it was gratifying to see a community helping others without judging them.

Or maybe it was Mr. Mellencamp's impromptu decision to have one of his assistants come back with a fistful of 70 free tickets, something which obviously wasn't part of the original plan. Several Tent City volunteers turned them down so there would be more for the homeless.

For whatever reason, something clicked between Mr. Mellencamp and Toledo on Nov. 2, 2007.

And it's still clicking.

His momentary recognition of those in need at that concert gave momentum to a new group, 1Matters.org, which has displaced the Homeless Awareness Project as Tent City's organizer.

In recent weeks, Mr. Mellencamp has done public service announcements for 1Matters and homelessness at large. He gave 1Matters founder Ken Leslie a rare interview while on tour. It went out to a network of newspapers for the homeless that includes Toledo Streets.

"He is a strong brother in arms to give compassion to those who deserve compassion," Mr. Leslie said Thursday.

Although Mr. Mellencamp's latest tour was planned months ago and does not include a Toledo stop this time, he is offering four free tickets and a chance to meet him at his Nov. 19 concert at the Fox Theater in Detroit to the person who raises the most money for Tent City's newest feature, a one-mile walk to raise awareness of Toledo's homelessness.

Tent City - now a weekend rite of autumn - will be at its familiar location, Civic Center Mall next to the Toledo Police Department's headquarters, next Friday through Oct. 31.

Donated clothing, food, and supplies will be distributed to people who live on the streets, as will free medical and dental care. Some of the area's top musicians will provide free entertainment.

Last year, more than $75,000 in supplies and services were given away. Donated clothing can be dropped off at many city and suburban fire stations.

The 1Mile Matters Walk begins at Promenade Park at 10:30 a.m. on Oct. 30. It will traverse through downtown, and wind up at Tent City with a lunch.

"We're inviting the whole community down," Karen Soubeyrand, Tent City volunteer, said.

Participants should gather 30 minutes or more beforehand at the starting point. To register, go to 1matters.org, she said.

"We hope this is the beginning of something larger. If this inaugural walk is successful, I could see 1Mile Matters replicated in other cities next year," Mr. Mellencamp's publicist, Bob Merlis, said.

The connection between Toledo and Mr. Mellencamp is resonating strong enough that Mr. Merlis - a New York native who now lives in Los Angeles - became a member of the 1Matters board of directors a week ago, even though he has only visited Toledo once.

"I got Mellencamp involved and I don't want to be a hypocrite," Mr. Merlis said, adding that he would like to work with Mr. Leslie in expanding the program to other parts of the country.

Said Mr. Leslie: "We're trying to make this bigger than Toledo."

It may be only a small step in terms of glitz and glamor, but 1Matters has caught on with Findlay, a Hancock County city of 45,000 people that's about an hour's drive south of Toledo.

Saturday, Findlay is hosting its first communitywide outreach program for displaced people.

Homeless people and those trying to hang onto their housing will be provided free social, medical, dental, and legal services at St. Marks United Methodist Church, 800 South Main St., from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The Findlay event begins with a 9 a.m. rally that will include a variety of speakers.

The idea for a local tie-in to 1Matters came from Bev Phillips, United Way of Hancock County's community services director.

"A lot of our homeless are the 'invisible' homeless," said Jennifer Swartzlander, assistant director of Findlay Hope House for the Homeless, Inc.

She said many are people who live in cars and go "couch-surfing" among the residences of friends and relatives.

The event will have an important outreach component beyond the services it provides. Organizers want to show "the ripple effect of housing instability and homelessness" to the general populace, she said.


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