“To most people the “homeless” are nothing more than vague faces of poverty reflected in the mirror of a society afraid to even look, much less help.
To we who live, laugh, love and serve with them, they are friends that Matter – God’s very precious children who are hurting and dying while craving, aching and struggling for mental, physical, emotional and financial serenity.
They are just like you and me; it’s just that they do not have a home.” — Ken Leslie
What he affectionately refers to as his “Party Animal Days” (beginning at age 12) produced chemical and alcohol addictions that drove him from the middle class, to poverty, to the streets.
In 1986, he became a stand up comedian – which he now jokes “professional homelessness” – quickly rising to headliner status after winning several regional comedy competitions. “I barely graduated high school. Seriously, I streaked across the stage to grab my diploma.”
While traveling the country, making people laugh, in the late 1980s he began to see more and more “homeless” landing on the streets of our nation.
With Harry Chapin, Sir Bob Geldoff and John Mellencamp as inspirations and examples of artists who have used their celebrity to bring people together for a cause, Ken brought together his media friends in radio, television and the press along with politicians and the service providers to create the first Homeless Awareness Project Tent City in Toledo in 1990. This was a week-long community collaboration event for and WITH the homeless designed to get people off the streets, provide services, and prepare the chronically homeless on the streets for winter, provide food, clothing, bonding, and lots of music and entertainment.
The work he did with the homeless at Tent City that November also moved him deeply, very deeply, and made him feel there might even be some “good” in him after all. On December 5th, 1990, he literally RAN to Alcoholics Anonymous to quit drugs and alcohol. Sober today, he relates to the unhoused as peers; he’s been there himself.
With the yoke of addiction off his back, he then began the hard work to obtain financial and domestic autonomy.
Beyond his comedy career, Ken had gotten into television production in the 1990s. Over the next decade he produced and wrote many programs, including three award-winning documentaries on homelessness: “No House to Hold,” “Homeless Not Hopeless” and “A Home for the Holidays,” as well an Emmy-winning baseball feature with the Detroit Tigers in 1992.
In 1997 he started an executive search firm, still running today, allowing him to add his philanthropy to the community. He is the founding funder and a founding member of the Toledo/Lucas County Homelessness Board (TLC), a collaboration between the City of Toledo, Lucas County and United Way.
Started in 1990 as the Homeless Awareness Project (HAP), the all-volunteer organization became a local advocacy group providing real time collaborative solutions to move unhoused individuals and families into domestic autonomy. Its annual Project Connect Community Collaboration event is being expanded to four additional cities and the group has funded the start up of three street papers in Ann Arbor, Detroit and Toledo.
In 2008 HAP became 1Matters after a visit by singer John Mellencamp to their annual event. John was moved by the collaboration and invited all of the guests to his concert that evening where he talked with them from the stage. One guest returned to Project Connect and said “Ken, John talked to us from the stage, I guess I really do matter.” 1Matters was born. Mr. Mellencamp and others in the music industry continue to support the organization.
25 years after its inception, Tent City is still going strong, Ken is still sober, still running his business and still doing comedy and television when the mood or project strikes including “Called To Duty,” the 2002 Crystal Award of Merit winning documentary about firefighters. As a comic he has shared bills with such acts as DL Hugely, Sinbad, Seinfeld, Sam Kinison, Frankie Valli, the Righteous Brothers and occasionally still headlines regional comedy clubs or the Stranahan Theater.
In March 2012, Ken Leslie was named a Jefferson Award winner for Community Service. In March 2013 Ken was the recipient of Advocates for Basic Legal Equity/Legal Aid of Northwest Ohio’s “Access to Justice: Community Advocacy Award for his efforts made on behalf of disadvantaged persons and communities.
Also in 2012 Ken started Veterans Matter. The success of Veterans Matter earned Ken an invitation to the White House in June 2014 as part of the Veterans Summit to End Veteran Homelessness.
He’s come along way from the days of living in his car.
UPDATE: After Dusty Hill of ZZ Top, John Mellencamp and Mitch Albom asked Ken to expand to their home states, along with funds raised by Katy Perry and Kid Rock, Veterans Matter quickly grew. Having to make a choice of one, or the other, at the end of 2015, Ken closed his Executive Search practice to house homeless heroes. “Veterans really do Matter, we MUST take care of our own.”
“We are Homeless, Not Hopeless; We Matter!”
With the advent of 1Matters and Ken’s role as a Social Entrepreneur, there are new paths to follow such as creating jobs, housing veterans or working globally to change the perception of the unhoused. Most are, in fact, law-abiding citizens who are very down on their luck often due to loss of a job, addiction, mental illness or any of the other causal pathologies that produce the loss of domestic autonomy.
Ken sees the “homeless” very differently from most: On the streets he sees them sharing the single sandwich. He sees them coming to Tent City because they want to VOLUNTEER to help the homeless. He sees them giving up something they have to be sure the children in the families are fed and clothed.
Ken sees the homeless for who they really are: people who, no matter their circumstances, feel compelled to help their fellow man. In other words, they want to matter to someone. They are you and me.
He has been there; he knows. And they know he knows. They say “that brother keep it real.”
Because of his unique circumstance, he is a voice for the unhoused from the “inside” – not as an employee in the social service system, rather an objective volunteer, businessman and philanthropist. Sometimes those running the ”system” are uncomfortable with that voice, particularly when it comes to accountability.
Since 1990 Ken has served on every Toledo area homeless task force and committee. As a member on the TLC Board, he represents the unhoused AND the community’s money at that table, reporting back to both, shining the light of accountability and integrity on a system that sometimes gets dark.
What does he think? “I’m just like every other human being on this planet, each day I just try to be and do the best I can be or do, that’s all.”
Most in power call him the conscience at the table; a few in power call him a pain in the ass, and the unhoused on the streets and in the shelters? They call him friend.
– “Gary Bond, a formerly homeless man who now lives in an Old West End home, agreed. He said street people admire Mr. Leslie for sticking up for them.
“The community knows his face. He’s [our] friend,” Mr. Bond said. “He has complete credibility. To have earned that trust – I don’t know of anybody else who’s done that. He walks between two worlds.” – Toledo Blade 2/6/2010