The Ghost of Buddy Gray

Are rumors of a move by the Drop Inn Center a sign that the emergency shelter might finally step out from under the shadow of its late, legendary founder? Or is it just a lull in 32 years of entrenched civic warfare?

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In January of 1978, in the middle of the night during one of that brutal winter’s blizzards, a group calling itself the Over-the-Rhine People’s Movement took over the abandoned Teamsters Union Hall at 217 West 12th Street.

For five years the group had used various rooms and storefronts to provide shelter to the homeless. But the takeover of the union hall—rechristened The Drop Inn Center—made it clear that “the people” had permanently staked their claim. It took city officials a few days to learn about the illegal midnight move, and when the secret was out it set off a battle that has, in many ways, endured to this day.

Their leader was Stanley “Buddy” Gray, a long-haired, bearded figure in bib overalls whose movement strove to preserve Over-the-Rhine foremost for the poor. From that snowy January night, Gray and his supporters went on to spend decades battling City Hall, developers, and preservationists over the future of the neighborhood, squaring off against any development efforts that might displace low-income residents. Their opponents, meanwhile, strategized for years on how to remove them from a location they considered illegitimate and unnecessarily provocative. Every few years, new rumors surfaced about plans to move the center from the block south of Music Hall and Washington Park. And every time a rumor surfaced, center officials dug in their heels. It was a polarized conflict with no middle ground, not even after Gray was shot to death in 1996 by a mentally ill homeless man.

So when word leaked last summer that the Drop Inn Center’s board was in talks with the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC), the private nonprofit spearheading much of Over-the-Rhine’s redevelopment, to consider a new location, people on both sides of the issue were stunned. In the eyes of many advocates for the poor, 3CDC had become Enemy Number One: a quasi-governmental agency with no oversight that was displacing low-income tenants all over downtown and Over-the-Rhine. “An evolved form of all the gentrifiers of the past,” as one activist put it. Why, many longtime center supporters wondered, would the board even sit at the table with them? And if the Drop Inn Center could be coaxed into moving, would the dozens of other social service agencies in the neighborhood be vulnerable too?

Developers and public officials, meanwhile, were convinced the hundreds of millions of dollars pouring into the surrounding blocks—including renovations at Music Hall and Washington Park—presented an unparalleled opportunity to remake the historic district. And the presence of the new School for Creative and Performing Arts gave them an uncharitable but potent argument that resonated with much of the public: Would you want to send your 5-year-old to a school a block away from an emergency homeless shelter? Opponents of the shelter had never had more compelling arguments, or a greater sense of urgency, on their side.

But that urgency has, for the moment, cooled. Though officials from The Drop Inn Center and 3CDC have met off and on for months, no deal has been struck. What’s more maddening—at least for opponents of the center, who are legion—is that it’s entirely possible the shelter will stay put on 12th Street for the foreseeable future. Still, it is clear that much in the conflict over the Drop Inn Center has changed. After decades of planning (and hand wringing, and setbacks…), Over-the-Rhine is being transformed. The city’s policy on homelessness has changed, too, with the emphasis moving away from emergency shelters and toward placement in permanent housing. And the center itself has changed, adopting significant reforms that don’t always mesh with the vision of its founders. A conflict that for years has existed starkly in black and white has developed a whole new shade of gray.

What remains to be seen is whether a middle ground—a solution that protects the center’s clients and encourages neighborhood development—can be found in this long, rancorous debate. Is compromise possible, or only capitulation? Can all involved climb out of the trenches they’ve occupied for decades and declare a truce? It seems the specter of Buddy Gray has stood over the center, protecting it from the encroaching bulldozers of progress, for longer than anyone could have imagined. But even ghosts have their limits.

Stand at the southwest corner of 12th and Elm streets, in front of the cinderblock dorm the Drop Inn Center added in 1985, and it becomes evident how rapidly and radically this portion of Over-the-Rhine is changing. Across Elm Street stands the shiny new School for Creative and Performing Arts, a $72 million campus that’s a cornerstone of Cincinnati Public Schools’ recent success. Just north of the school is Washington Park, one of the oldest in the city, where cranes and fencing signal the start of its $47 million makeover. Back across Elm, just north of the Drop Inn Center, venerable old Music Hall is about to launch a $100 million renovation. The Drop Inn Center sits on the planned streetcar line, and restaurants, shops, and condos seeded in the Gateway Quarter lie two short blocks east. After decades of talking about neighborhood revitalization, a profound physical transformation is finally underway.

And while money certainly plays a part in the campaign to move the Drop Inn Center—given its location, the value of the land it sits on is steadily rising—the particular details of Over-the-Rhine mean it’s about more than just money. The neighborhood is believed to be the largest intact urban historical district in the country and is home to a vast collection of Italianate architecture; preservationists regularly compare its housing stock to places like Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina. In 1983, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places—a designation Gray and his followers fought bitterly for years, because they believed gentrification would inevitably follow.

As it turns out, gentrification was not so inevitable. The National Trust for Historic Places has included the entire neighborhood on its “most endangered” list, and it appeared in the Frommer’s travel guide 500 Places to See Before They Disappear, which noted the area’s “shocking state of neglect.” Around every corner, it seems, stands another building close to collapse. During the last decade, OTR’s population fell to about 5,000—one-tenth of what it was at its height—and for years the only businesses that thrived were social-service agencies. There’s a palpable need for investors to renovate these historic buildings before they’re beyond repair—if, that is, the neighborhood is to be preserved.

That’s a big if. Washington Park, created more than a century and a half ago, has functioned for years as a de facto refuge for the city’s homeless population. During the day, people line the park’s perimeter, fill its bandstand, and linger around its Civil War monuments. It’s easy to see why: With at least five social service agencies offering shelter, food, or other assistance in the immediate vicinity, the park is a natural destination for people living on the streets.

While the police have succeeded in reducing crime in Over-the-Rhine (calls for police service to the neighborhood were down 21.5 percent in the first half of the year alone), relations between the cops and advocates for the homeless remain tense. That tension was ratcheted way up in July after Cincinnati Police Officer Marty Polk ran over Joann Burton, a homeless woman, as she lay sleeping under blankets in Washington Park. Very soon, though, the park will be closed for construction for roughly a year; and it’s an unspoken but clear goal of developers to move the Drop Inn Center before it reopens, to thin the ranks of loiterers.

In the 1970s, former vice mayor and longtime City Council member Jim Tarbell lived across from Washington Park before the Drop Inn Center moved in. He  has been inflamed about Buddy Gray’s coup ever since. One shelter supporter told me that mentioning the Drop Inn Center to Tarbell “is like waving a red flag in front of his face.” Tarbell was in many ways a parallel to Buddy Gray 40 years ago—a middle-class white kid choosing to live in increasingly poor and black Over-the-Rhine. But where Gray became an activist fighting on behalf of the poor, Tarbell advocated for a mixed-income, entrepreneurial approach to reviving the neighborhood.

Tarbell disputes the notion that OTR has always been a sort of homeland for the homeless. “I was around when Buddy put [the Drop Inn Center] there,” he says, “and there was no ‘scene.’ The reason for putting it there was so it would be in the face of people going to Music Hall—the Saul Alinsky school of thought—which was exactly the wrong thing. It should have been on a quiet corner somewhere. Bill Donaldson, the city manager in the late 1970s, said it was so wrong from a planning point of view that there would be ceaseless conflict about it. He told council, ‘If you approve [the move], you’ll be paying for it forever.’” Council members ignored Donaldson’s advice and approved of the move.

“Once they got in and had their little headquarters,” Tarbell says, “it became—if your goal was to max this out politically, there couldn’t have been a better location.”

The Drop Inn Center founders have always maintained that the Teamsters building worked because it was large enough to accommodate the expanding need for shelter, and because it was convenient for many of their clients. As for the park, staffers at the center readily concede that some of their residents spend time there: It’s a public park, after all, and they have a right to be there. But they maintain that many of the people in the park don’t live at the Drop Inn Center, and those who spend their days there are generally an older, well-behaved group who don’t cause problems or threaten other visitors.

“It may be unpleasant for people to look at,” says Elissa Pogue, a social worker who is chair of the Drop Inn Center’s board of directors. “It all depends on how clean, how antiseptic you want a place to be. Over-the-Rhine has never been like that.”

Advocates for the poor point to 3CDC’s plans for Washington Park as proof of the intention to remake the neighborhood for affluent “outsiders” at the expense of longtime poor residents and their families.

3CDC representatives declined a request to talk about the future of the Drop Inn Center; it’s their policy not to comment on any possible deals before they are finalized. But the organization’s vision for the park is well known. The plans call for expanding Washington Park—which is bounded by Elm and Race Streets and runs from 12th Street nearly all the way to 14th Street—from six to eight acres, installing a new playground and interactive water feature, adding performance spaces, a “civic lawn” the size of a football field, and an underground garage. The work will eliminate the park’s deep-water pool and basketball courts, as well as some trees, which has infuriated many locals.

“If you piece it together it’s sort of like a military map,” says Josh Spring, the youthful, tattooed executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless. “They started by vacating Vine Street, which they now call Gateway Quarter. No one remembers it, but there used to be people in those buildings and kids playing in the street.”

Spring’s group sees the proposal to move the Drop Inn Center as part of a campaign to clear downtown and Over-the-Rhine of low-income residents. He ticks off other examples, such as the decision to turn The Metropole, the single-room occupancy hotel next to the Contemporary Arts Center, into a boutique hotel; and the conversion of the Dennison Hotel, an imposing, vaguely Stalinist hulk on Main between Seventh and Eighth Streets, from 105 low-cost sleeping rooms to permanent supportive housing. “In the 1950s we had white flight and people of means fled to the suburbs, and now those same kinds of people want it back,” he says. “Cincinnati wants people living and shopping down here, but what they don’t understand is that you have to do it through moral means.”

In this grinding civic chess match over the future of Over-the-Rhine (and to a greater degree, downtown), the new SCPA building, which now inhabits the entire city block on the southern end of Washington Park, has given an advantage to those who would like to see the center relocated. And a tragedy—the 2009 murder of SCPA student Esme Kenney by a sex offender who’d been kicked out of an Over-the-Rhine halfway house—became part of the debate. Despite the fact that Kenney attended SCPA in its old location; that her murderer never lived at the Drop Inn Center; and that the murder took place miles from Over-the-Rhine, the crime became fodder for those arguing that the new SCPA location necessitates that the Drop Inn Center either move or be moved.

Josh Spring refutes that argument by pointing out that Washington Park Elementary School was at the northern end of the park for decades, serving children who were largely poor and black, and no one ever complained.

“Either the homeless people are more dangerous now,” Spring says wryly, “or the kids at SCPA are more important than the kids at Washington Park Elementary were.”

As Over-the-Rhine has changed, so too has the city of Cincinnati’s policy on homelessness, and the way the Drop Inn Center does business. The changes reflect an evolution in the understanding of how best to help the homeless, as well as essential differences in how the two groups view and respond to homelessness.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon I toured the Drop Inn Center with emergency shelter director Fanni Johnson and chief operating officer (and interim director) Arlene Nolan. Johnson is tall, warm, and maternal while Nolan, crisply businesslike, is a self-confessed “numbers person” who has spent her career in nonprofit management. They walk me through the combined cafeteria and lounge as it is emptying out after lunch; a medical van has just arrived to provide care to residents. Small groups of people sit at tables talking. Others read and still others stare at the wall. The television in the lounge stays off until late afternoon. In the emergency shelter’s entry dorm—a cinderblock room off the lounge—120 green mattresses stand empty, still wet from that morning’s scrubdown. Residents get blankets only upon request, but the metal bunk beds are a vast improvement on the floor mats the center used to furnish.

Also off the lounge and next to the entry dorm is the men’s step-up dorm, a recent innovation designed to reward residents who have found a job and aren’t dealing with active addictions or mental-health issues. Men in the step-up dorm have the privilege of sleeping in the same bed every night, complete with sheets, pillows, and blankets, and have a locker in which to keep their belongings. On the other side of the cafeteria, behind electronically locked doors, sits the two-story women’s dorm, with its own lounge and rows of single beds.

 
Sex offenders are barred from staying at the Drop Inn Center, as are the physically violent; there are about 70 names on the center’s bar-out list, and the staff requires identification for admission. Step-up residents are encouraged to limit their stay to 90 days or less, although exceptions are made as needed, and people who are intoxicated are allowed to stay. This is a vestige of the shelter’s first incarnation (then called the Alcoholic Drop In Center), which was founded by Buddy Gray and other neighborhood volunteers after a friend of Gray’s froze to death on the streets. Back then, there were no barriers to admission and no limit on how long people could stay; the shelter was there to help everyone who needed it, whenever they needed it, no strings attached.

Bonnie Neumeier, one of the founders of the shelter and Gray’s longtime companion, speaks with quiet deliberateness and pride about those early days. “We accepted people that maybe no one else would,” says Neumeier, a small woman with long, graying hair who cofounded Over-the-Rhine’s Peaslee Neighborhood Center. “We saw the need before the city realized there was even a need for a public shelter. We were really the people who stood up for the basic human right that everyone should have a roof over their head.”

The new shelter saw its resident base increase as the economy soured and psychiatric institutions released their residents. The volunteers who ran the center became a political force who could be counted on for protests at City Hall and fought bitterly against the proposal to add Over-the-Rhine to the National Register of Historic Places, believing it would lead to the displacement of poor people. Gray’s army managed to delay the decision for three years and rejoiced when it lost by a vote of 8–7, but the keeper of the National Register reversed the decision and added Over-the-Rhine to the list in 1983.

While the Drop Inn Center offered social services to residents who wanted them, it operated under the belief that the homeless didn’t necessarily need anything more than a place to sleep. Its founders were critical of religious shelters that espoused a “pray to stay” policy, and the Drop, as some affectionately call it, allowed the homeless a degree of self-determination not found in many shelters. In addition to allowing residents to stay as long as they needed to, the shelter let non-residents come in for meals, a shower, or a place to hang out. The policies stayed in effect long after Gray’s death. But about five years ago things started to change, as the loose, ad-hoc operations gave way to a more organized, professional way of doing business.

“There’s a time to be noticed and a time to be effective,” explains Elissa Pogue, the energetic head of the board. “It used to be mostly a grass-roots organization and grass-roots was even in our mission statement, but we took it out four or five years ago. In the beginning we were mostly volunteers, but we’ve professionalized a lot in the last few years.”

A social worker whose husband participated in the Drop Inn Center’s takeover of the Teamsters hall, Pogue is clearly sympathetic to the aims of the center’s founders. However, she and others realized that the old way of doing things had ceased to be effective. The board of directors, for instance, had long consisted of staff members, residents, and volunteers who lacked the perspective and experience to analyze issues objectively. So they recruited board members with expertise in marketing, development, and finance, as well as social work and nonprofit management.

The new recruits set about refining the Drop Inn Center’s mission. They created the bar-out list to prevent sexual offenders and the physically violent from staying there. They also instituted flexible limits on the amount of time residents could stay and stopped allowing non-residents to hang out there.

Board members realize the looser policies of years gone by have engendered many hard feelings toward the Drop, but they maintain the agency’s efforts to change are sincere—and separate from the issue of whether it will remain on West 12th Street. Earlier this year longtime executive director Pat Clifford was fired. The board maintains that his dismissal was unrelated to the proposed move, though some members suggested that he acted more as an advocate for the homeless rather than what the center really needed—a detail-oriented manager. (Clifford did not return calls for comment.)

Critics of the Drop acknowledge that things have changed in recent years, and that it has improved the care it delivers to its clients. But they also say the changes don’t negate the many reasons to move it, and that creating a shelter from scratch in a new location would ultimately help the homeless more than the converted union hall they now occupy. “Things got pieced together at the beginning and people should be acknowledged for that, but
the community is now at a point where we can do better,” says Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls, the primary force in City Hall behind the push to move the center. “We can fight all day long and take positions on symbol and ideology, and that’s what’s happened for the last 40 years. But the big change is there is now a critical mass of people saying this isn’t about symbol and ideology, it’s about helping people and matching the services provided with the needs of the individuals.”

Qualls has been a driving force behind the city’s Homeless to Homes initiative, which was launched in 2009 by the Hamilton County Continuum of Care for the Homeless, the agency that manages the federal funds allocated for care of the homeless. The initiative, which presented its recommendations earlier this year, brought together experts in homelessness, funders, and people from the community to design from the ground up a system to respond to homelessness. Those recommendations include, among other things, an increase of 1,020 units of permanent housing, with accompanying services to address issues like mental illness and substance abuse that so many chronically homeless people suffer from. Homeless to Homes also recommends 191 new units of transitional housing—that is, housing that is designed to support people who are working toward independent living. It does not recommend an increase in the number of emergency shelter beds.

The report makes no mention of how to change specific shelters, but many homeless advocates saw in it an implicit criticism of the Drop Inn Center. For instance, the Drop Inn Center has 220 beds spread across three dorms; the report calls for no shelter larger than 50 beds in order to de-concentrate the services. And while the Drop currently houses women in a separate wing of the building, the report calls for a women’s-only shelter. Recently the Continuum of Care awarded a contract to the YWCA to build and operate the women’s-only shelter. When it was revealed that the new YWCA shelter could cost more than $3 million, it gave Drop Inn Center supporters a potent argument that resonated with fiscal conservatives and other unlikely allies: Moving the Drop Inn Center from West 12th Street would require spending lots of money on facilities that could be better spent on services.

“We live and work in a system that has finite resources and we have to spend them wisely,” says Spring, the homeless coalition director. “A new building isn’t going to get people out of homelessness. Housing, a living wage, improved case management—these are the things that get people out of homelessness, not site location.”

It’s an article of faith for many policy makers that mixed-income communities help the poor by showing them a way out of poverty. That’s why high-rise housing projects were torn down across the country over the last 20 years and replaced with scattered-site housing; massive, dense public housing projects came to be seen as warehouses for the poor and reformers believed they would benefit from living among the middle class.

Over-the-Rhine has tried to build protections for the poor into its official plans. The neighborhood master plan, created in 1985 by residents and approved by the city, called for the preservation of low-income housing as its top priority; by 2002, it had been changed to a recommendation of 25 percent market-rate housing, with development forbidden to displace low-income residents. If history is any guide, though, some displacement of the poor is an inevitable part of the sort of change now happening in Over-the-Rhine. Low-income residents are the first to move as younger gentrifiers move in; and the twentysomethings are later priced out of the neighborhood as older, wealthier residents are attracted to the condos, restaurants, and other amenities that tend to accompany urban revitalization.

From Miami University’s Center for Community Engagement in Over-the-Rhine, at the corner of 13th and Vine, director Tom Dutton has watched the activity in the blocks just south that have been transformed into the Gateway Quarter. There are now shops and restaurants, with newly rehabbed condos above, that have attracted young, mostly white, professionals. As an architect who has worked in the neighborhood since 1981, Dutton appreciates the significance of the historic buildings and likes to see them saved. But as an activist who worked with Buddy Gray for many years, he disputes whether low-income residents benefit from any of the improvements.

“Buddy Gray was always about mixed-race communities and mixed-income communities, that people should be able to live wherever they want. But he also understood that when you leave the market to its own devices, it doesn’t serve the poor very well,” says Dutton. Dressed in jeans and a canvas shirt, Dutton sips a lemonade in Venice on Vine, a pizza parlor across from his office that trains low-income workers for jobs in food service. “We had experts who came in around 2001 and said, ‘If you don’t secure this base of low-income housing, it will be gone. It will be steam-rolled.’ And that’s what the Buddys of the world are fighting for, to secure that base.”

“Mixed-income” is a mantra repeated by developers, especially in urban areas like Over-the-Rhine. Vice Mayor Qualls says that more than half of the residential development supported by the city in Over-the-Rhine since 2005 has been affordable housing, and about seven percent is for permanent supportive housing designed to keep people with mental illness or disabilities out of shelters and off the streets. City officials and developers are sincere about maintaining an economic mix in the neighborhood, she says, and advocates for the poor have a role to play in the development—if they choose to be involved.

“You have to recognize that Over-the-Rhine is changing and Washington Park is changing, and regardless of your perspective on it, this is an opportunity,” Qualls says. “At a certain point, the forces of change have so much momentum that change will happen. If your reaction is to fight and resist and not step up to help change it, that’s your choice. But my hope is that you can choose to help shape the outcome on this.”

Clearly there is a difference between a newly renovated low-income development that’s indistinguishable from its market-rate neighbor next door, and an emergency homeless shelter serving the city’s neediest residents, which by nature is chaotic. But even developments that house the homeless are moving forward with little of the attention the Drop Inn Center is attracting. 3CDC is helping City Gospel Mission build a new shelter to replace its Elm Street building. The Anna Louise Inn, which provides permanent housing just off Lytle Park to women who might otherwise be homeless, is planning a renovation with little fanfare. And Lighthouse Youth Services is renovating a new shelter for young adults in Corryville, a step recommended by the Homeless to Homes report because the needs of homeless people age 18 to 24 are in large part very different from those of older adults.

So, why has the battle over the Drop Inn Center been so intractable for so long? Pogue says the center’s board isn’t automatically opposed to moving, and that there has been healthy debate among its members about what is best for the shelter. She also says that center leaders have become accustomed to the decades-long pressure to move, and they don’t want to be an obstacle to Over-the-Rhine’s renaissance. But they stress that they must evaluate each proposal based on how it affects their residents, which means finding a convenient location and a facility with manageable operating expenses.

“It’s all about changing the nature of the neighborhood and we understand that that’s a factor,” says Pogue. “But we have to consider other things. We want the neighborhood to flourish and we see the bigger picture, but we have to advocate for the needs of our clients first.”

There’s also the ongoing—not to mention integral—question of whether moving the shelter to a less conspicuous place would hurt or help the homeless. Some advocates maintain that moving is tantamount to hiding the problem; because of where it is, the Drop Inn Center reminds the rest of us—school children and their parents, symphony patrons, suburbanites and urban hipsters—that there are still citizens in our society who lack a basic necessity like shelter. To which a frustrated proponent of the shelter’s move replies: “What are they, a fucking zoo exhibit?”

Proponents of the move sound slightly nervous these days because the process is taking so long, but they are still optimistic that everything will fall into place. “Right now,” says Tarbell, “the longer everything takes, the more complicated it gets. But I think with the park being redone, SCPA, the renovation of Music Hall—there’s too much going on, too much at stake. It’s too bad it had to come to this, but it should have been taken care of a long time ago.”

As Josh Spring sees it, any new location would be a disservice to the Drop’s homeless clients, because OTR is their home. “When people get up in the morning, it’s usually 10 feet to the bathroom and 20 feet to the kitchen,” he says. “But when you’re homeless that 20 feet becomes two miles, and if you move the Drop it goes to four miles.”

Perhaps it’s Spring’s age—he wasn’t even born when the Over-the-Rhine People’s Movement took over the Teamsters hall—but he’s one of the few people who sound wistful about the clarity of the Buddy Gray days. “People my age, they come out of school and they say, ‘This is going to be my job, I’m going to help people who are homeless,’” Spring says. “But the people who founded the Drop, they weren’t saying, ‘I’m going to help the homeless.’ They said, ‘I’m going to end homelessness.’ It was a cause. I think in some ways we need to get back to the stance [Buddy Gray] had, that we’re going to end homelessness and we’re not going to sit here and take it. There are some things we just shouldn’t compromise on.”

With more than 30 years of struggle under their belts, though, the other principals can be forgiven for longing for a bit of compromise, to find that elusive place where everyone can walk away with something. But it’s hard to fathom how these two sides might meet in the middle and what that middle might look like: either the Drop stays where it is or it moves, either the advocates win or the developers do. It’s up to the Drop Inn Center’s board and 3CDC to write a different ending, to come up with a suitable new home for the homeless that also preserves the neighborhood.

But they’d better hurry up. The ghosts of that January night have had a busy three decades, and they must be awfully weary.

Illustration by Paul Blow

Originally published in the December 2010 issue.

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