AT A MEETING of recovering drug addicts in West Baltimore the other night, there were more answers than questions, which is a good thing in group therapy - it means there's honesty in the room. Everyone seemed to feel free to recount their struggles and express their feelings, and no man put his brother on the spot with questions - until they got to me.
"Would the gentleman in the back like to explain what he is doing here?"
asked a slender man, who spoke with an exotic accent, looking at me from his
seat along the wall.
I said I was one of many Baltimoreans who are "sick and tired" of the
city's heroin-and-cocaine cancer, which was allowed to fester for decades -
left horrendously under-treated until Peter Beilenson's time as city health
commissioner - and which still accounts, directly or indirectly, for most of
the crime, violence, family dysfunction, neighborhood blight, backed-up court
dockets and crowded jails here. With some 40,000 addicts, how can we ever be
"The Greatest City in America"?
So, on June 9, after another night of drug-related homicide, an open letter
to dealers appeared in this space, asking them to quit the life and offering
them help in finding other employment.
Since then, more than 200 men and women have called 410-332-6166 to take me
up on the offer.
In addition to all the calls from former and current dealers and addicts,
we've received numerous calls and letters from readers. Like the men in
Thursday night's group, readers have felt free to recount their struggles and
express their feelings. They also have questions. Here are some of the most
Who calls for help?
Mostly men, average age about 35. Half say they sold heroin or cocaine for
several years, but never used those drugs, preferring, if anything, marijuana.
The rest say they sold dope and coke to support their habits. One played
basketball at College Park, then became a hardcore heroin dealer. Others held
various blue-collar jobs while doing dope. Some never worked. All have
criminal records that, they say, keep them from getting even low-paying jobs
now. All express a desire to stay out of drug dealing.
Have any young guys asked for help?
Only a few. One, who was 19 and named Raynauld Watkins, called here in
July, a few days after a boy he knew, 16-year-old Jawan Lee, was shot to death
in a pizza shop in West Baltimore. (Follow-up calls to Watkins have not been
returned.) There have been more calls from men in their 20s, like Tavon Tyner,
profiled in this space on Father's Day. Tyner has enrolled in a course for his
high school equivalency diploma.
Are women calling?
One, a 26-year-old named Monique, claimed to have made $1,000 weekly
selling cocaine - "mostly to Caucasians" - before going to jail for five
months; she wanted help finding legitimate work. Most of the women I've talked
to still need drug treatment. But this gets us to a huge problem - the wait
for in-patient treatment for the under-insured or uninsured. One woman said
that, when she called an agency for help, she was told to keep calling back
"until there was an open bed." She was in tears over a system that can't
deliver a treatment slot for several weeks. We still don't have enough funds
for treatment on demand. A piece of the state budget surplus should be used to
finally make it a reality.
Are companies coming forward to offer jobs to drug dealers?
A few, most recently a demolition company seeking up to 10 workers at $10
to $15 an hour. The company received several applications from men who had
contacted The Sun. Several men have found jobs through Goodwill of the
Chesapeake's ex-offender program, and others are working through STRIVE
Baltimore to get job interviews.
Does The Sun hire ex-offenders?
Most companies that do so resist making a fuss about it, and that includes
The Sun. A criminal record is not a bar to employment here, according to Pat
Klemans, director of human resources, who says the nature of the offense and
when it occurred are taken into account. The Sun has relationships with
Maryland New Directions for Women, Goodwill Industries and five other agencies
for recruitment purposes. A former drug addict, Steve Dixon, wrote in an
e-mail: "When I first got clean, I sold the Sunpaper on the corner of Broadway
and Orleans for 18 months. It was very humbling, yet ever so helpful."
What agencies need funds to help people get out of the life?
This question has started to come up in the last few weeks. One reader
offered bus fare to help ex-offenders get to job interviews. The Baltimore
chapter of the American Institute of Wine & Food donated $1,000 to Moveable
Feast to support the culinary training program it offers to men and women
looking for a new career path. (Former drug dealer Harry Calloway, among
others, is in that program now.) I could get in a lot of trouble with a
partial list of non-profits deserving donations. So, let me suggest a visit to
the Web site of the city's ex-offender initiative, http://www.oedworks.co
m/exoffender.htm. Look for the resource guide; it lists dozens of agencies
involved in this effort.