Canaries in the Coal Mine – Part 6

The Band-Aid Effect

I started working on this Part 6 essay in July 2016. So you will understand why I cannot NOT say something about the week from hell that began with two more Black men being murdered by police in St. Paul and Baton Rouge, and ended with police being murdered by a Black man in Dallas. Then there was the Black man in Atlanta found hanging from a tree. All of this ugly hate and violence and life-ending lack of self-restraint must stop. The rest of us hold our aching heads and our breaking hearts, and clutch our terrified children. We women worry about the men in our lives; parents and grandparents worry about the children in our hearts; men worry about how to protect themselves and their families.

Nor can I keep quiet about the judge’s acquittal of Baltimore City police officers and the State’s Attorney’s decision to drop charges for the remaining officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray. Some of us are enduring idealists who believe in the power of the justice system, except when it doesn’t deliver justice. The State’s Attorney, a young African American woman born into a family of police officers, spoke with a level head and a heavy heart. Though clearly discouraged by her team’s inability to prove guilt when the Medical Examiner himself ruled Mr. Gray’s death a homicide, she gave me hope that we will one day have a justice system that is just.


Then in August 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice (under President Obama) released the 164-page findings from their extensive investigation into the practices of the Baltimore City Police Department. Suffice it to say, after counting the use of the word “unconstitutional” 47 times, that I found the report to be a sad and painful vindication of years and years of complaints against the Police Department’s deliberate profiling, harassment, and brutality of the city’s African American residents.

Many poignant statements have been made in response to these events—one of the most compelling by author and legal scholar, Michelle Alexander—and I doubt that I have anything better or new or equally poignant to say about this exhausting period of time. Except to reiterate that everything that I describe in the Canaries in the Coal Mine series about life in Baltimore is a fundamental part of the equation. The living conditions I detail are outcomes of something insidious and uniquely American. And until we distill and confront the root causes of explosive violence and racism and fear, we will be prevented from planting seeds of solution—seeds that, in turn, will take root and make way for compassion and justice and peace. As my own small contribution to that goal, here is Part 6 of Canaries in the Coal Mine.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand the massive disconnect in Baltimore between good intentions and industrious effort, and the pitifully slow and small progress in our poor neighborhoods. Someone stated at a hearing the other night that these neighborhoods are the same as they were 20 years ago. I stood up and retorted, “No, they’re not. They’re not the same. They’re worse!” What I have concluded is that the sad end result throughout so much of Baltimore City took many years (perhaps more accurately centuries) and plenty of deliberate intent to achieve. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with the present day and end result.

The general public has a pretty good idea that ghetto life sucks in Baltimore, but most of us don’t really know just how bad things are. You may not have heard, for example, about the mother infected with HIV who gave birth to a baby outside of the hospital, which meant that the baby never received the newborn dose of AZT that would have prevented it from becoming infected with a deadly virus. You may not have heard about the 7-year-old whose daily duties include getting her younger siblings ready for daycare each morning because their addicted mama can’t get out of bed. Or the 11-year-old who slips an “anonymous” envelope filled with cash into the mailbox so that his disabled grandmother can pay the electric bill and buy food for him and his five siblings—cash earned from his post as a scout for drug dealers, yelling “5-0” when he sees a patrol car coming down the street.

If you drive your car to work, you may not be able to relate to men and women who wait anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 hours for the bus to arrive, placing their “at-will employment” job at risk every day. Maybe the high rate of robberies and muggings helps you to understand why so many elder residents don’t dare leave their buildings after dark. Perhaps, even after watching the news, you are still puzzled by the despairing youth who are convinced that they will die before they reach their 25th birthday, and so they make lousy choices instead of taking the necessary steps to become the lawyer or doctor or poet they yearn to be.

Maybe you can sympathize with the frustration of the brilliant and artistic man whose one stupid mistake as a teenager and subsequent felony drug possession charge means he will never again secure a job worth his talent. Maybe you can also imagine the despair felt by the mother of three boys who lost first her eldest son, then her middle son, then finally her youngest and last son to the street.

You may not know what it’s like to live with rats or cockroaches or bedbugs, scratching all night long with one eye open instead of sleeping. You may not know what it’s like to go to bed hungry at night—tonight, tomorrow night, and the night after that. You may not know what it’s like to live next door to a houseful of squatters who feed trash to snarling pit bulls chained up out back regardless of the weather. Even if you have read about these things or heard about them or imagined them after watching THE WIRE, you still may not understand just how this squalid life came to be.

Oh the blinders we wear, traveling south from the County on Interstate 83 to downtown, sidestepping the ‘hood without knowing that a beloved community was bulldozed down to make way for construction of the Interstate. We turn off the news when we tire of hearing about yet another homicide without thinking about what it would be like to suddenly lose our own precious sons to violence. We cynically roll our eyes when the Mayor of a major East Coast port city is convicted of embezzlement without considering the enormous ripple effect that a lack of leadership and abundance of corruption has on city government. Are we seriously confused by activists who rail against the City spending $9 million on rat-proof garbage cans (one per household) instead of on youth programs? Do we really not see the injustice in awarding $660 million in tax relief to Under Armour’s billionaire CEO so that he and a group of rich developers can comfortably develop one more upscale condo complex on Baltimore’s waterfront? Is that truly what we need—more upscale development?

If we do not live it, we remain outsiders to the poverty, discrimination, and suffering in Baltimore’s neglected neighborhoods. Our lack of personal exposure and understanding poses a major hindrance to making things better. We blame the victim instead of attacking longstanding policies of segregation or re-allocating funding or promoting services that heal and empower people.

Problem-solving 101 says that you must know the scope and scale of a problem in order to understand its causes or trace its consequences. Once you understand a problem’s scope and scale, as well as its root causes and consequences, then (and only then) will you be equipped to craft a solution that is relevant and effective—not to mention large and potent enough to have a lasting impact. Because if you don’t truly know what’s wrong and thus don’t understand how things got this bad in the first place, or if you’re fuzzy as to how large or complex or broad-reaching or entrenched the problem is, or if you don’t see how this problem is thoroughly intertwined with other problems and therefore its solution also hinges on the solution to other problems, then you can’t possibly get to the core or the root cause of the problem. And if you don’t know the root cause, it’s pretty much guaranteed that you won’t be able to make a well-informed decision as to what approach you should take to solve it. You will look at the jigsaw puzzle of problems and recommend that they be tackled in silos. America likes to keep things simple and separated. Don’t mess up my vision by drawing all these crazy lines of connection! Don’t confuse the issue by telling me that drug addiction and housing are related or that unemployment leads to gang warfare. We reject complexity and choose instead to put a simplistic Band-Aid over a festering wound. This is what we do every single day in Baltimore.

It doesn’t help that the Baltimore SUN has been bought up by a company whose action step #1 was to eviscerate the news desk “in order to save the paper,” wiping out most of the SUN’s historically strong capacity for investigative reporting. We used to be able to rely on a handful of seasoned journalists to give us the straight skinny, but not anymore. And despite the abundance of data that the government collects, we don’t get the straight skinny from the government either. This certainly adds to our ignorance.

Baltimore’s human service and criminal justice data are kept in a plethora of government and nonprofit statistical databases: CitiStat, BabyStat, CrimeStat, DrugStat—you can almost hear the corny rap song emerging from these names—Kids Count, Families Count, Baltimore City Data Collaborative, Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance, Maryland Center for HIV Surveillance and Epidemiology, University of Maryland Center for Substance Abuse Research (CESAR), State of Maryland Automated Record Tracking (SMART), Ryan White CareWare, and the United Way of Central Maryland’s Raven System. And don’t forget the all-important population data collected and compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau from which all denominators are created.

Reports compiled by the City and State and made available to the public may be a commendable attempt at providing us with useful data, but there are so many problems with government data (data being the plural of datum, a word we never use). Let’s start with the fact that data collected and reported by local government are rarely geocoded below the citywide level, impeding our ability to know what’s going on in a given community. Then, the definition of a statistic or the way in which a statistic is presented in a data report can change dramatically, making trend analyses virtually impossible. Youth, for example, may be defined as below age 16 for years, and then suddenly re-defined as age 13 to 19. When a change like this is made, it impedes any comparison of one year to the next and makes historical trend analyses impossible.

Next, the topics included in government reports often tend to be selective. What is not included is sometimes quite baffling, particularly when what is left out is fundamentally important. In addition, data are routinely at least two years old and sometimes much older. For example, here we are in 2016, but the most recent Baltimore City Health Profile was published in 2008 and the mortality data contained in this Profile is from 2006—a lag time of ten years! Whether or not an updated profile report is published also seems to depend on the whims of the sitting health commissioner.

Despite these problems, what is reported—unemployment (17%), households with incomes less than $25,000 (45%), and adults over 25 years who didn’t complete high school (30%)—is ominous enough! The health department also reports that infant mortality (the death of babies before their first birthday) in southern Park Heights is more than three times the national rate (19 deaths per 1,000 live births vs. 6 deaths nationally). According to the CIA’s online World Factbook, this rate is on a par with Uzbekistan.

There are many causes of premature death in southern Park Heights: homicide, drug overdose, and HIV get all the publicity, but the community’s residents also die young of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, cancer, and asthma. As a result of these early deaths, life expectancy in the community is 20 years lower than in the U.S. overall (58 years vs. 80 years) and a good 10 years lower than the worldwide average life expectancy of 68 years.

The City itself acknowledges that more than 50% of all deaths in this community were “avertable”—meaning that they “could have been avoided if all Baltimore communities had the same opportunity at health [emphasis mine].” So, even the outdated statistics are shocking—and trust me when I tell you that things are not getting better.

Because the information distributed to the public is unlikely to be complete or up-to-date, we never—ever—seem to have access to the comprehensive up-to-date information that would actually help us get to the core of what’s wrong. (Even when there’s an epidemic we don’t have comprehensive up-to-date information!) So, instead of learning the true scope and scale of a problem enabling us to get to the core and root cause of the problem, we use what we think we know.

In truth, we are confronted with a deep-seated, festering wound in Baltimore. But we may not know it. It’s hard to see, given its age and depth. And without up-to-date data or information from past years that reveal trends over time, we can’t know the wound’s size or depth. Thus, instead of the available data enabling us to clean out the wound and maybe even gouge it out so that we can wash it properly at its innermost core, which is the only way that it will heal properly, i.e., from within (as any first-year veterinary student or farmer’s daughter knows), we simply heap on more and more and still more bandages. The wound is now so far out of sight (and thus mind!) that we completely lose track of its festering.

We see gang warfare and react, imposing criminal justice responses. Because we don’t understand the mindset or motivations or early entrapment of involved youth and essentially don’t even know what we’re looking at, we end up with full prisons that conveniently free up slots for the next generation’s gang members instead of solving the problem.

We see homelessness and react, opening up night-by-night shelters. Because we don’t take the closing of mental institutions under Ronald Reagan or the spiraling unemployment of blue-collar workers caused by a changing economy and global trade into account, we end up with shelter waiting lists or raffles and street intersections staffed by homeless beggars, homeless addicts, and homeless children wielding squeegees instead of solving the problem.

We see child abuse or domestic violence or child support arrearages and react, intervening in ways that destroy families. Because we don’t incorporate historic psychological and relationship trends set into motion during the vicious institution of slavery or the barriers to marriage imposed by the 20th century welfare system and fall-out from War on Drugs felonies into our analysis, we only see bad parents, bad spouses, and bad fathers who need to be removed. We end up with thousands of depressed mothers, absentee fathers, damaged children, and broken families instead of solving the problem.

We see addicts caught with illicit drugs and react, sending them to jail or, if there’s an opening, to a 15-day detox or maybe even a 30-day residential program. Because we don’t remember that this smelly cursing addict was once a beautiful baby and eager child with a future, we lower our expectations and convince them to substitute legal medicine for illicit drugs without worrying about their actual need for spiritual sustenance, self-esteem, opportunities for growth, or—let’s be real–love. So we end up with temporarily pacified addicts who temporarily stop thieving and a burgeoning drug treatment industry that employs thousands of people instead of solving the problem.

When wounds are not cleaned properly and instead are allowed to fester, septicemia sets in—a systemic (full body) infectious process that turns deadly in short order. Baltimore’s septicemia is documented in the city’s vital statistics: infant mortality, youth homicide, drug overdose, HIV, and a life expectancy that is 20 years lower than the national average.

Ok, Ok, we do try! But when you look for a successful turnaround that lasts, what you will find all throughout our city are Band-Aids. Our attempts at programs and services and initiatives and revitalization are all too short and too superficial and often so culturally incongruent that very little changes. Or we literally make things worse. Our human service and education and criminal justice and even housing attention is consumed by WHAT we do, but rarely WHY we are doing it or what the intended long-term IMPACT is of what we are doing. Our commitment to our clients, our patients, our students is temporary, ranging from a parole sentence to a night in the shelter to a 15-day inpatient detox to the six hours in the school day. Funders’ commitments last a year or two at best and always with the same short-sighted and condescending caveat—“so if we choose to fund you, sweetie, where are you gonna go for funding next year?”—a question that falsely presumes that an unlimited corpus of city agencies or private foundations are just waiting to entertain our proposal next cycle.

Let’s be honest, we Americans are like water bugs. We like to go fast, barely skimming the surface of the pond. We like to discover and invent stuff, come up with quick fixes and magic bullets, throw a bit of cash at the problem. We may stand in awe of the cathedrals of Europe and the pyramids of Africa and the temples of Asia, but the notion of working on something that won’t even manifest in our lifetime is invariably foreign. We rarely commit to digging in and deliberating on the hard stuff.

Segregation has been a legal framework of Baltimore’s infrastructure for centuries. Discrimination in housing and employment have been the rule of the day for centuries in Baltimore—and it still is. The public school system is thoroughly segregated, despite Brown v. Board of Education, and doesn’t teach poor Black children (or the handful of poor white children…) how to read prodigiously or think critically. If something as old and deep-rooted and legal in our infrastructure as segregation and discrimination are the root causes of the terrible state of affairs in the ghetto, then obviously we need to sign up for the long haul.

If only we would reflect on the innumerable lawsuits and receiverships and hands-on monitoring that the federal government has imposed on Baltimore, because many of our local and state government agencies were repeatedly deemed incompetent or corrupt, or both…

But we water bugs prefer to remain hopeful that a hot meal and a night’s shelter will turn around mental illness. We water bugs prefer to insist that a 15-day intervention is sufficient to turn around 20 years of hardcore addiction. We water bugs delude ourselves that a 10-year prison sentence will discourage violence. We water bugs convince ourselves that a school-based intervention will curb antisocial behavior that begins with unrelieved hunger in the morning and ends with neglect and angry yelling at bedtime. Funders kid themselves that a year’s worth of funding is sufficient to stabilize grant-dependent nonprofits that have delivered mainstream services since Ronald Reagan took an ax to the federal budget. (Do I seem to be picking on poor Ronald… ?)

None of us worry about the hereafter. We can’t afford to. Jeez, we can’t do everything, we say, lamenting our limitations! The problems are too big, too all consuming, too entrenched, too discouraging. We are too stretched and there is never enough time, enough staff, enough resources, or enough funding to do it all. We are overwhelmed by too many clients, too much need, too much sadness, and too many people who are ill and impaired and abandoned and dying. So, we do what we can and we try to feel OK with that. Just like the funder who fumed with exasperation in the opulent comfort of his glass-walled downtown office, “But Lindsay, there will always be poverty and drugs!” Well, I guess if the problem will always be there, then it’s (fortunately) not our responsibility to solve it…

We all know that we aren’t doing enough. One of America’s favorite mottos to relieve the guilt is, “It’s the thought that counts!” But the thought doesn’t count, not when literal survival is at issue. Perhaps a reminder that “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” begins with the word LIFE would be helpful…

I know that some of you are worn out by my relentless finger-pointing. Will she shut up already and get on to describing what will work? People’s reaction to my blogs have been generally segregated by race: white people get annoyed and antsy, black people are relieved and vindicated. So, assuming there is anyone white (or black!) still reading, please bear with me while I hammer this goddamned point home!

When guilt and corruption and incompetence coalesce in Baltimore, there are even instances where something that is clearly effective is ignored or even wiped out so as not to make the rest of us (and our mediocrity) look bad. Only rarely, does anyone in Baltimore have the adequate insight and guts to dig deep enough to find out what is truly needed and then commit the full breadth of resources necessary to accomplish something meaningful and lasting. Sure, you might help an individual or a family if you work on a piecemeal basis, but if you really want to help them (and their neighborhood) in a way that is broad-reaching and lasting, it may take years. Worst of all, if you are only willing to consider that individual or family situation right now today, then as soon as your commitment to them ends, another individual or family will step right up for services. This is Baltimore’s revolving door.

Frankly, we need fewer people who do what they can, and more people who do what the situation calls for. And what does the situation call for in southern Park Heights, not to mention all of the devastated ‘hoods across Baltimore? I suggest that nothing short of an all-out Marshall Plan is what’s needed—you know, that $12 billion American-sponsored effort to rebuild western Europe after World War II. We need a modern day Marshall Plan in Baltimore that brings shipload after shipload of resources to the impoverished neighborhoods! Trees needs to be planted, grass and flowering shrubs need to be planted, the sidewalks and streets need to be repaired, and homes need to be renovated (or torn down and rebuilt). Schools need to be the top priority—the buildings need to be repaired, playgrounds need to be safe and inspiring of play, the air conditioning and heat need to function properly, the children need books and art and physical education, the water fountains need to provide the children with lead-free water, and the cafeterias need to provide the children with healthy breakfasts and lunches so the kids will grow up to have strong bones and good eyesight, not to mention full bellies and an ability to concentrate during class. Adult education and job training needs to be offered citywide, and then the graduates from these programs need to be offered permanent jobs with meaningful work at living wages even if they have a felony conviction.

Transportation needs to be affordable and reliable and get people from home to work in less than 3 hours. Every community needs to have food stores that sell healthy food and gardens in which to grow organic fruit and vegetables. A library with Wi-Fi needs to be installed. Outposts that provide immediate care for acute health issues need to be added. Police need to walk their beats and get to know the residents, especially the children. Rat control and sanitation needs to be effective and continuous. When a resident calls 911 because there’s an emergency, the police or ambulance or fire fighters need to respond like it’s an emergency. Toddlers need playgrounds and teenagers need healthy recreational outlets. Elders and young lovers need comfy benches in a shaded and safe park that is carpeted with flowers.

It’s only what the rest of us expect in our daily lives, right? The residents of southern Park Heights want what any of us want: the opportunity to go after the American Dream. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness… Maybe that phrase needs a bit of embellishment so that it reflects what we actually mean by it: long and healthy life, liberty from threats and unemployment, and the pursuit of happiness that is supported by a compassionate and fair legal system.

We are far from there. But the more honest and courageous and committed we are in exploring the true causes of the inequities in Baltimore, the more likely we are to ever achieve our goals. At least, this is my fervent hope.

COMING UP NEXT:  Population Decline

Photo Credit Benjamin Jancewicz 2015

Urban Health
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