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
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.
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
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
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
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.