From The Vault: Buddy Gray fought for the homeless until he was killed by homeless madman

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Posted at 11:27 AM, Nov 17, 2016
and last updated 2020-01-09 14:18:40-05

CINCINNATI – What would Over-the-Rhine look like today if Buddy Gray hadn't been murdered 20 years ago by a homeless man he had helped?

Would there be revitalization with less gentrification? Fewer restaurants, shops and market-rate housing? More and better low-income housing? 

Would the Drop Inn Center still be down the street from Music Hall, where Gray founded it after a homeless friend froze to death in the winter's cold, and not dispatched to an out-of-sight location in Queensgate?

Although Gray had a huge impact on Over-the-Rhine as a untiring advocate for the homeless and the poor, it's hard to imagine one man – even one so devoted -- holding back the flood of economic and political forces that have transformed that neighborhood. Nor could we be sure he would have wanted to.

But we'll never know. Wilbur Worthen, a madman with a gun, saw to that when he walked into the Drop Inn Center on Nov. 15, 1996 and unloaded a .357 Magnum into the 46-year-old Gray.

Worthen believed Gray was trying to poison him by pumping nerve gas into the apartment Gray had found for him. Worthen was found not guilty by reason of insanity and died in a mental hospital in 2006.

Some of Gray's friends wondered if Gray had been assassinated, but no evidence of that was ever reported.

Gray was as outspoken and dedicated a social and political activist as Cincinnati has ever seen, and considering  he was a child of the '60s, he looked the part with his long hair, headband, scruffy beard and bib overalls. When he wasn't driving a beat-up truck, he used to ride his bicycle through the neighborhood and to meetings at City Hall. Gray grew up in suburban Anderson Township, but when he moved to Over-the-Rhine and saw the poverty and homelessness, he took up the cause.

Gray butted heads with city and business leaders who had already a plan for developing the once-grand but dilapidated neighborhood, with its rich but aged and crumbling architecture and a prime location next to Music Hall and Downtown.

Gray wanted to ensure that the poor and homeless weren't driven out.

He was often "combative, controversial, even confrontational," the city's director of buildings and inspections, Bill Langevin, told WCPO on the day Gray was killed.

But even Langevin said Gray "had my respect."

"The only thing he wanted was what was best for that neighborhood from his perspective," said Nick Vehr, then a city council member,  "so we may have disagreed, but there's tremendous respect for his commitment to that neighborhood and its people."

Calling themselves the "Over-the-Rhine People's Movement," Gray and a few friends took up shop in the abandoned Teamsters Union Hall during the blizzard of 1978. They renamed it the Drop Inn Center and gave shelter to the homeless. When city officials finally found out about it, several days later, they gave their consent.

What harm could it do, they must have thought. But it became a political battleground for almost 40 years.

Gray set up a non-profit called ReSTOC (Race Street Tenant Organization Co-operative) and got grants from the city, state and federal governments to buy and renovate property to offer to low-income residents.  Scores of volunteers worked to clear debris and fix up buildings.

Gray and ReSTOC converted a hotel into single, furnished apartments for recovering alcoholics.

Gray also created state and national coalitions for the homeless.

But Gray took on more than he could do.

When he died, ReStoc owned or controlled 79 buildings. Most of them were still empty and in disrepair.

Some of Gray's detractors called him a slum landlord and even a  "poverty pimp." They claimed he wasn't breaking the cycle of poverty, but perpetuating it by enabling the poor and blocking development.

In 1980, Gray made lots of enemies when he opposed a proposal to add Over-the-Rhine to the National Register of Historic Places. He thought that would be another force to drive out the poor. He managed to delay the decision for three years and successfully lobbied the voters in Washington to a 8-7 decision. But the keeper of the National Register overturned the vote and added OTR to the list.

In hindsight, Gray also fell short in his operation of the Drop Inn Center. At first, it filled a crucial need in the neighborhood. But Gray's idea was just to provide a bed for the night – no alcohol or drug treatment, medical or mental-health care or job training. He barred sex offenders and anyone violent or abusive and required identification. There were incentives for working men. They got more than just a bunk. They were allowed to sleep in a separate area in the same bed every night with pillows, sheets, blankets and a locker.

But Gray ran a loose ship with no limits on how long people could stay and no restriction on visitors. Anyone could just come in for a meal or a shower or to hang out.

After Gray was killed, it took almost a decade for his influence to wane. When it did, things started to change.

A county agency was formed to manage federal funds allocated for the homeless. The city threatened to pull a $700,000 loan from ReSTOC and forced it to sell some of its properties. ReSTOC later merged with another non-profit.

The board of the Drop Inn Center recruited new members to tighten its policies and redefine its mission – specifically, to provide more necessary care, not just a bed.

The battle over the location of the Drop Inn Center continued for almost 20 years after Gray's death. Roxanne Qualls pushed to move it, saying it needed more space and permanent housing units. 

The Washington Park renovation and the building of the new School for Creative and Performing Arts two blocks away doomed any hopes for keeping the Drop Inn Center at 12th and Elm.

In October 2015, the men moved into the converted Butternut Bakery building. Four months earlier, the women moved into the new Esther Marie Hatton Center in Mount Auburn.

None of that should diminish Buddy Gray's legacy. A friend, Thomas Dutton, who helped establish the Drop Inn Center in the midnight raid on the Teamsters Hall, said people misunderstood Gray.

"Buddy Gray was always about mixed-race communities and mixed-income communities, that people should be able to live wherever they want,"  Dutton was quoted in a Cincinnati Magazine story in 2010. "But he also understood that when you leave the market to its own devices, it doesn't serve the poor very well.

"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."

If Gray were alive, at age 66, no doubt he would still be fighting.

SEE more video and stories about Tri-State history in our "From The Vault" series.