Radio host takes homeless issues to heart

KBOO'S Orion Gray leaves a proud legacy of civic-minded journalism when she heads to Japan this summer


Orion Gray is the host of KBOO's Hole in the Bucket, a show about homelessness, housing and poverty. This summer, she will depart for Japan to teach English, leaving her partner Liam Delta and others to carry a very heavy torch. We caught up with Orion recently to talk about the issues that have shaped her life in the City of Roses.

street roots: KBOO has always been a strong supporter of the Homelessness Marathon, a 24-hour radio marathon about homelessness hosted by Jeremy Alderson. Was Hole in the Bucket inspired by this broadcast?

Orion: Yes, definitely. Our then-P.M. news director Dennise Kowalczyk was so inspired by the marathon that she was moved to find time in our busy broadcast schedule for a show on poverty and homelessness. She knew Liam Delta and I were already working on those issues, so she came to me, and Hole began. It was her vision and interest that made it happen. Go Dennise! That's what KBOO is all about, filling unmet needs in our media environment.

sr: What are some of the highlights you've had hosting Hole in the Bucket?

Orion: When we take calls for the show, and people without housing call in, I feel like the show is meeting its mandate to be a voice for the voiceless. And having the Kennsington Welfare Rights activists, who are heroes of mine, phone in to the show.

sr: You've always been a strong supporter of Dignity Village, and now you're working with Kwamba Productions on a documentary about the village. Can you tell us a little bit about working with both of these groups?

Orion: The whole point of Kwamba is to replicate the Dignity Village model, and to have it spread like an anarchist virus. The reason Kwamba is breaking its ass for this project is because we believe in Dignity, and because we believe other cities can do this too.

sr: Why is it important for the community to understand what Dignity Village is about, and is this what Kwamba is trying to capture?

Orion: Dignity challenges the rules outlined by our economic system, and by our government, which is heavily invested in the status quo. Some of these rules are: Housing and land will be a market-rate commodity, privately owned. You must not build your own shelter, you may not use vacant land, and if you live outside of shelter, you will be criminalized. The system will also say we may choose to provide you with shelter at our discretion, on our terms, to certain "deserving" individuals at certain times, and we can revoke these privileges without cause for any reason. Challenges of any of the above rules may result in housing in the prison system. Dignity challenges these rules using direct action, born out of the starkest need, and high ideals. It's both visionary and practical, like the Kennsington Welfare Rights Union seizing vacant HUD housing in Philadelphia, bypassing HUD's rhetoric that they can't house Philly's tens of thousands of homeless families. By joining into a village, people gain bargaining power, like J.P. Cupp said when he paraphrased Che's battle cry, "We need two, three many tent cities!"

sr: Currently the mayor and Erik Sten's offices are standing behind the camping ban. Having had the opportunity to interview a wide range of people involved with homelessness on Hole in the Bucket, including a staff member from Sten's office, and then dozens of homeless persons through your work at crossroads, what are some of the things people have expressed about it being illegal to sleep in Porltland?

Orion: If Marshall Runkel's comments on the camping ban are any indication of Erik's stance, then Erik is sniffing glue. Marshall couldn't answer my questions about why Erik was supporting the camping ban, except to say that some policemen "were nice about enforcing the law," so it must be humane, and I apologize to my listeners for not being able to extract more sense out of him.

The people who have experienced homelessness that I interviewed when I worked at crossroads made a lot more sense. The clearest argument is that sleeping is a human body function, impossible to avoid, and that penalizing people for sleeping in public, if they have no other choice, is a human rights abuse, and a form of torture. Judge Gallagher used a similar argument in his 2000 ruling on the camping ban as it applied to the Wicks case, saying that penalizing homeless people for sleeping in effect penalizes them for their very status. The city of Portland apparently thought the Judge had a good point. The DA has not appealed the decision, in what many others and I think is a strategic move to disallow the case from being applied more widely if it was upheld in a higher court. Another thing about Erik's support of the camping ban is it's going to alienate a slew of progressive voters that have voted for him in the past. If he decides to run for mayor, those are the votes that he'll need. It's like he's forgotten who his constituency is.

sr: Being the strong woman that you are in what sometimes can be a very sexist environment, what are some of the high points and low points of being an organizer on the homeless front?

Orion: I've found it's mostly a plus, because it puts people at ease -- they feel more comfortable to open up to a woman. On the other hand, organizing as a whole, of any kind, is damaged by the kind of attention-hogging and patriarchy encouraged in men, sometimes even progressive men. I know you're shocked. A good organizer knows when to keep her mouth shut, and spends a lot of time getting other people involved. Fellow organizers, try to be self-conscious, even if you think you're far too progressive to even unwittingly uphold the patriarchy.

sr: Whether you know it or not, you are one of the most fashion savvy ladies on the scene. Without a doubt, you are a person with your own style. Who are some of your influences surrounding style and self-expression?

Orion: Feminism, and the punk-rock ethos of rejecting big money and status quo of fashion. I value creativity, and comfort over social safety, which working with street kids through Yellow Brick Road for five years helped me define.

sr: Over the past year, a lot of coalition building has been going on between several grassroots homeless organizations. Do you see these coalitions gaining momentum and being able to play a role in ending homelessness?

Orion: We have to get bigger and we have to get our shit together, and form our righteous anger into action. It's what KBOO is all about, networking positive efforts, and provides a forum for unpopular views and social justice. Hopefully, Hole in the Bucket has helped that along, letting people who are fighting poverty, and the commodification of housing know what their fellow fighters are up to, and to stay informed on some really complicated stuff.

The homeless front is definitely gaining momentum. I've lived in Portland for 11 years, and there's no more exciting time to be involved in the fight to end homelessness. In a way, we have to thank George Bush. The Bush seizure has been good for lighting a fire under our progressive asses. Also, having a mayor interested in criminalizing the very poor has been good in a way, too. It's like how the Reagan era was good for punk rock.

sr: You will be going to Japan at the end of the summer to teach English. What experiences are you looking forward to in the Far East?

Orion: I'm looking forward to a livable wage and health care benefits, because America's status as a first world nation is slipping, as anyone trying to find a job in Portland will tell you.