Canaries in the Coal Mine – Part 5

The Depth of the Problem (Part 2)

This Part 5 of a 6-part series.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

By 2010, funding support from the now organized and burgeoning philanthropic sector, combined with the invaluable training support of Maryland Nonprofits, led to a major growth spurt and subsequent maturation of the human service sector. Thousands of individuals and organizations set about to address Charm City’s considerable list of woes. Today, Baltimore now boasts a booming business of halfway houses, drug treatment programs, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, AA and NA meetings, mobile health vans, Ryan White HIV providers, needle exchange, early childhood programs, after school programs, charter schools, youth development programs, mentoring programs, fatherhood programs, GED classes, re-entry programs, workforce development, social workers, outreach workers, anti-gang workers, church ministries, neighborhood associations, land trusts, and community development corporations. Compared with the skimpy and unsophisticated service provider network that was in place when I first arrived two decades earlier, the city now had a veritable army of health and human service workers.

In the past 20+ years, Baltimore has hosted enough human service and criminal justice initiatives to sink a tropical island: Babies Born Healthy, Healthy Start, Head Start, Success by Six, Making Connections, Youth B’more, Youth Opportunities, Youth Development Strategy, Just Kids, Safe and Sound, Responsible Fatherhood, Empowerment Zones, Citizens on Patrol, HotSpots, Alternative Drug Sentencing, Civic Works, Economic Recovery for Neighborhoods Initiative, Baltimore Neighborhood Collaborative, Healthy Neighborhoods, Safe Neighborhoods, Safe Streets, Main Streets, Clean Streets, Housing Mobility Initiative, Baltimore Reads, Prevention Wednesday, Functional Family Therapy, Threshold to Recovery, Disproportionate Minority Contact Reduction Initiative, and a slew of faith-based initiatives.

Private foundations have also gotten in on the act, launching their own initiatives: Open Society Institute-Baltimore’s Audacious Thinking blog and Tackling Drug Addiction; the Abell Foundation’s Baraka School in Kenya and Astor Court residential complex for Baltimore teachers; the Enterprise Foundation’s HIPPY (Home Instruction for Parents with Pre-school Youngsters) and Enterprise Women’s Network of Baltimore; the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives and Closing the Achievement Gap. These lists are by no means exhaustive, for in Baltimore, just like the endless ghetto I describe in an earlier blog (“Setting the Stage”) of this series, the full list of “initiatives” goes on and on and on.

Further fueling the uncontrolled birth of human service programs, a steady stream of federal funding supports Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Youth Violence Prevention and Urban Health Institute, University of Maryland’s Institute of Human Virology and Maryland Center for Health Equity, Morgan State University’s Urban Research Institute, Morgan Community Mile, and Baltimore Urban Systemic Initiative—all urban laboratories in which academic researchers and grad students explore health disparities, risk behaviors and behavioral change, conflict resolution, school retention, and family stabilization. Local funders of these programs then insist that their research findings and so-called “best practices” be applied everywhere.


The Documented Impact

So, after we stop to take a deep breath, let’s see what we have to show for this 20-year-long flurry of academic research and human service industry. Certainly, there are hundreds, if not thousands of inspirational stories about individuals who have been saved or jump-started over the years. There are mothers who managed to lay off drugs and adhere to AZT treatment long enough in their pregnancy to protect their babies from HIV infection; teenagers who skirted around the gang/drug life, graduated from high school, and even went on to college; ex-offenders who secured gainful employment, were reunited with their families, and never returned to jail. Baltimore’s human service programs are meaningful in their own right. Some of the most inspirational initiatives have been launched by people who were themselves resurrected and, in turn, were eager to help their fallen brothers and sisters to recover and rebuild.

Yet, the sad truth is that, while some initiatives enjoyed early and even dramatic outcomes, most didn’t begin to get at the root of the problem or see individuals or neighborhoods through to stable, long-term recovery. Certainly, precious few of them prevented problems from occurring in the first place. So as countless troubled individuals and needy families got in line for services, the next cohort of disengaged teenagers were seduced into the streets, enticed by the profits to be made in hawking heroin and crack on street corners, and the reputation to be built by casually shooting their competition, brazenly defying police patrols, and ignoring warnings or pleading from family who still cared. The tens of thousands of adult customers of this billion-dollar trade continued to thieve and swap their bodies for full if contaminated needles in shooting galleries and crack houses that crop up in the endless string of abandoned buildings along main corridors of the city’s multiple ghettos—passing a deadly and cleverly mutating disease back and forth during their episodic escapes. THIS is Baltimore’s endless ghetto, just as the book, The Corner, and the HBO series, The Wire, portray it to be.

The reality is that a powerful machine of entrenched poverty and illicit drugs in Baltimore, in combination with systemic segregation, discrimination, and neglect, counters any and all well-intended human service effort. Each and every day, this machine churns out even more neglected children, more school drop-outs, more drug dealers, more addicts, more homeless, more violent offenders, more abused women, more adults who can’t read, more children who don’t want to read, more young girls having babies, more grandparents raising babies, more babies in foster care, more posturing young men entering prison, more middle-aged men leaving prison with an “F” stamped on their foreheads (for felony conviction), more remorseful old men rotting in prison, and countless new cases of HIV.

You may not see these tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free from the glass office towers or fashionable restaurants along the city’s waterfront, but they’re here—documented in the government’s health, education, and criminal justice statistics on a regular basis.

Urban Health
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