What leads a professional businessman to put his career on the back burner and devote most of his time and energy to helping the homeless?
For Ken Leslie, it was a simple matter.
“When God says go do something, you just go do it.”
Leslie has been pouring his energy, heart and soul into the nonprofit organization 1Matters and Tent City, the homeless awareness and assistance project that will be drawing thousands of people to downtown Toledo this weekend.
Meanwhile, his job as a recruiter for Strategic Search Consultants -- and his income -- have suffered.
“It becomes a struggle, trying to do both. But God’s going to take care of it all,” he said in an interview in his West Toledo office. “I’m up at 4 or 5 o’clock every day, read my Bible on here [holds up his cell phone], which is really cool, and then it’s coffee, coffee, coffee.”
Compounding the situation, his wife Norma, whom Leslie married in a ceremony held at Tent City, was recently laid off from a well-paying job as an administrator in the medical field.
This is the 22nd year for Tent City, which Leslie started in 1990 during a time of spiritual searching.
A former touring stand-up comic and a recovering addict who knows homelessness firsthand, Leslie has always been drawn to the edges.
Stretched out on the leather couch in his recruiter’s suite, he talks about his spiritual journey without resorting to the usual Christian lingo.
“You get sick of where you’re living and you want to find a different neighborhood,” he said. “God’s neighborhood is pretty cool. It doesn’t have the landmines that my old neighborhood has.
“There are two sidewalks in life, one is God’s sidewalk, which is really smooth, and the other is not God’s sidewalk and it has an awful lot of landmines and punji sticks and all those kinds of things. Not every step, but they’re there and you’ll find them.”
When did he move into his new neighorhood?
“Nov. 5, 1990,” he said, breaking into a hearty laugh.
“Tent city was in that November of 1990 and a big part of it was me deciding who I was: Was I this good guy who did this good thing, or was I this addict who does bad things?”
He left his addictions behind and has been an advocate for the homeless ever since, including running the annual Tent City that draws together multitudes from across Toledo’s diverse community.
“I lived in L.A. so I can see this stuff from an outsider’s view – we’ve got a really cool community,” Leslie said. “We are able to come together. Where else are you going to get the three lead anchors from television, and The Blade and the Toledo Free Press, and [radio host] Fred Lefebvre all together to lead a walk to start Tent City? Well we did and hell has not frozen over. That shows how cool this community is.”
He said the size and impact of Toledo’s Tent City program skyrocketed after rock star John Mellencamp made an appearance at the event in 2007. Mellencamp had been scheduled to perform a concert that same night in downtown Toledo, and after Leslie contacted him he stopped in, met with a number of homeless people, gave a brief talk and then left 60 tickets for Tent City folks to attend the concert.
Mellencamp also filmed a public-service announcement for 1Matters, the nonprofit agency Leslie founded to run programs to help the poor and homeless. Other celebrities have also given their support, including ZZ Top, Crystal Bowersox, Justin Bieber and Carrie Underwood.
In February, Leslie learned that many veterans and their families were unable to move into regular housing because they couldn't come up with a housing deposit. Within 11 days he had secured a grant from Promedica and moved his first homeless family out of a shelter and into a house. The new Veterans Matter organization has helped 22 veteran families find housing so far this year.
Leslie, who is in his early 50s, is a graduate of Perrysburg High School ("barely," he interjects) who discovered the power of laughter as a youngster.
“I learned that if you’re funny you get out of trouble easy, so I worked the comedy thing,” he said.
He made the rounds on the comedy club circuit in the 1980s and began noticing homeless people on street corners with signs or panhandling. The fact that many of them had children tugged at his heart.
But he was struggling with his own demons at the time.
“Most people don’t become homeless immediately. It takes time. You get warning signs, like eviction notices, or that the sheriff’s coming to take your stuff. You use your money for drugs and alcohol and you don’t have any money for utilities and rent,” Leslie said.
“People say, ‘Well the homeless want to be there. That’s like saying people want to smoke cigarettes. So many people who smoke have tried to quit and couldn’t because of the gravity of the addiction. In a literal sense, the gravity pulls you down. So if somebody says, ‘Well you just want to smoke,’ what are you going to say? Inside you know you want to quit but you haven’t been able to. Then God comes in and says, ‘Yeah, you’re free.’ Thanks!”
Leslie said he was raised a Catholic but grew up fearing God.
“I literally had Jesus beat out of me because I just knew the dude was somebody who was going to kick my ass,” he said. “It was not a loving God, man. Then my good buddy Charlie says, ‘Why don’t you use my description of God? He’s more like Santa Claus, a joyful man. He says, "Charlie, you screwed up. Try not to do it again.'" As opposed to a dude with a whip who’s going to beat me for sinning.”
On that November day 22 years ago, "I just turned my life around," Leslie said. "It’s easy to give your life over to a loving God.”
He said the mistakes he made and the bad experiences he went through all serve a purpose today.
“You figure God put me through everything I went through in order to put me where I am today, where I can help people It’s hard for them to get away with their bullshit because I’ve been there.”
Tent City starts with a 1Mile Matters Walk at 6 p.m. Friday (Oct. 26), with registration starting at 4:30 in downtown Toledo’s Promenade Park. Events continue through Sunday (Oct. 28). 1Matters is also holding a Tent City in Findlay, Ohio. More information is available online at 1Matters.org or by calling 419-349-4969.