It’s a little after six on an unusually balmy October 24th in Toledo, Ohio. Music is blaring, pumping up the crowd I am part of as we mill about along the Maumee River in Promenade Park. We are waiting for the beginning of the end…
Nearly three hundred strong, this throng is ready to Walk to End Veteran Homelessness, and that’s before 1Matters.org and Veterans Matter founder Ken Leslie takes the mic to thank everyone, give out awards, introduce people, talk about why we’re gathered. Though we already know why, it’s still moving to hear about the 475+ veterans, their spouses and their nearly 200 children — almost 750 people total — now off the streets and out of shelters and into safe, permanent housing. Those incredible numbers mean individual lives saved from homelessness, and hearing about that progress in just 2.5 years of operating never gets old. It just gets better, and bigger.
Dozens of blue shirts with red and white print are covering these walkers, and on the backs — at the very top — are names in black Sharpie, the names of veterans of whom these people will be walking in their honor…or memory. On Ken’s back is veteran and Ohio State Representative Teresa Fedor, herself walking in her own T-shirt…and heels!
I am not walking in anyone’s name. I guess I am walking for all the unhoused vets we have yet to meet and to house. The living Unknown Soldiers who need us to walk — and fight — for them.
Recognition given and excitement of purpose amped up, it’s time to walk. I fall in with various friends, chatting people up as we move along. There are pockets of bystanders who cheer us on, along with the cops watching over things at every intersection. The mile goes fast as we walk toward Tent City, a “human awareness project” that has served the unhoused and marginally-housed of Toledo for 25 years. Though we walk toward tents and charity and stories of pain and loneliness and need, the mood is festive because we know what else we’re walking towards: Hope. Family. Faith. Friends, new and old. And we’re walking towards an end to homelessness, for veterans and more.
When we get there, we are greeted again with music, and though the walk is done, the movement isn’t. Dancing erupts in the streets as the DJ plays the Cupid Shuffle, then the Cha-Cha Slide, followed by Wobble… but then someone requests M.C. Hammer’s U Can’t Touch This, and a flash mob forms (see below).
By the end of the night, this crowd has raised almost $15,000 by walking to end veteran homelessness. And, while we walked into a Tent City that would be gone in 48 hours time, we all walked home, too — for ourselves and others. What an incredible night.