How a Selfless American is Housing Homeless Veterans
By Tom Konecny, MeetAmerica
As much as America can be divisive, Ken Leslie knows where to find common ground.
Veterans. No matter if you are one, will be one, know one, or even don’t – Leslie is sure of this much, everyone comes together for American veterans.
He should know. In 2012, Leslie founded Veterans Matter, a national non-profit that partners with the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to help get homeless veterans off the streets and into long-term housing.
The idea grew from his idea that initially helped 35 veterans, to a celebrity-backed, fast-moving, lean and efficient staff that has housed over 2,100 veterans in 18 states. Party affiliations and backgrounds don’t matter. It’s all about helping veterans.
“Our board has liberal rock-and-rollers,” said Leslie, “and advisors to the Bush White House.”
Leslie’s goal is simple – house as many veterans as possible, as fast as possible.
Pitching his tent
Homelessness is a topic near-and-dear to Leslie’s heart. He was once homeless himself in the 1980s, then later found success as a stand-up comedian, TV producer and as head of an executive search firm. In the 1990s he helped create Tent City, an annual event that assists the homeless in his hometown of Toledo, Ohio (pop. 278,508) by drawing awareness to their needs.
Veterans Matter grew as an offshoot from Tent City when singer John Mellencamp was in Toledo for a concert in 2007. He visited Tent City and was blown away by its need and impact. Word of mouth would soon spread to others in the music and entertainment industry. Before long, Leslie had connections and financial support from celebrities like Katy Perry, Kid Rock, Susan Sarandon, Ice-T, Stevie Nicks and Willie Nelson, among others.
The primary financial support for Leslie’s effort includes celebrities, but also regular American corporations and veterans’ service groups.
Oddly enough, most veterans don’t even know it’s Veterans Matter who helps them. First the veteran goes to the VA seeking home buying assistance, then the VA contacts Leslie with the monetary request. Every single dollar Veterans Matter deploys results in a veteran being housed.
“We like being the guardian angel,” Leslie said. “We want to generate more money that we can give to the veterans. There are some veterans out there right now, a family on their knees, praying to find the money for a deposit.”
When Veterans Matter started in 2012, there were 60,000 veterans on the streets. Today that figure is down to 40,000, but Leslie contends that the problem will never end unless you create a system to end it.
“The idea that we will ever end homelessness is completely wrong,” Leslie said. “We’ll never end homelessness until we eliminate the things that cause it.”
Growing the cause
His concept started to take off nationally when Mellencamp formed the same concept in Indiana, Mitch Albom started one in Michigan, and ZZ Top’s Dusty Hill created one in Texas. Hill’s Operation Texas has alone raised over $400,000 and helped 750 veterans in his state.
“Even one more night on the street is one too many that could be the night that a veteran gets robbed or killed,” said Leslie.
Veterans Matter has three main events each year. The first initiative is local to Toledo, where a radio DJ hosts an outdoor summer disco party. Nationally, Veterans Matter partners with the National Exchange Club (also headquartered in Toledo) to stage rallies on Veterans Day across the country. A third effort finds American Legions conducting their own fundraising at the grassroots level in honor of their organization’s 100th anniversary.
I need a hero
While working as a stand-up for eight years, Leslie opened for legendary funnymen – Seinfeld, Kinison, Gottfried, Sinbad and Hall – but those stars never phased Leslie. Through working in comedy, he realized that everyone is the same, only with different jobs. And that’s how he galvanizes hearts to give.
“If you look at musicians and celebrities, they’re just like you and me,” Leslie said. “All we’re doing is giving people the opportunity to get involved.”
Leslie isn’t looking to make anyone help who doesn’t want to – he’s just rallying those who already find his cause important. He’d rather tell people what he’s doing to help, and those who feel called can join in.
Yet Leslie is quick to reject the hero label. He recounts the story of former NFL running back Herschel Walker, who resisted spiking the football after scoring a touchdown. Those celebrations, Walker insisted, weren’t necessary; he was only doing his job.
“No matter what manual you listen to, the Bible, the Koran, they all say the same thing, which is ‘love all,’” Leslie said. “And down the road, God will do the judging. So doing what you’re supposed to do doesn’t make you heroic.”
Perhaps Leslie doesn’t want to be called a hero, but there’s at least 2,100 American veterans who would argue otherwise.
“It’s for me personal,” Leslie said. “One of the most rewarding aspects of it, somewhere out there a veteran’s family has a roof over their head.”