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 torecount their struggles and express their feelings, and no man put his brotheron 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 hisseat along the wall.
I used recovery jargon in my answer.
I said I was one of many Baltimoreans who are "sick and tired" of thecity's heroin-and-cocaine cancer, which was allowed to fester for decades -left horrendously under-treated until Peter Beilenson's time as city healthcommissioner - and which still accounts, directly or indirectly, for most ofthe crime, violence, family dysfunction, neighborhood blight, backed-up courtdockets 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 letterto dealers appeared in this space, asking them to quit the life and offeringthem help in finding other employment.
Since then, more than 200 men and women have called 410-332-6166 to take meup 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 inThursday night's group, readers have felt free to recount their struggles andexpress their feelings. They also have questions. Here are some of the mostfrequently asked.
Who calls for help?
Mostly men, average age about 35. Half say they sold heroin or cocaine forseveral years, but never used those drugs, preferring, if anything, marijuana.The rest say they sold dope and coke to support their habits. One playedbasketball at College Park, then became a hardcore heroin dealer. Others heldvarious blue-collar jobs while doing dope. Some never worked. All havecriminal records that, they say, keep them from getting even low-paying jobsnow. 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 inJuly, a few days after a boy he knew, 16-year-old Jawan Lee, was shot to deathin a pizza shop in West Baltimore. (Follow-up calls to Watkins have not beenreturned.) 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 hishigh school equivalency diploma.
Are women calling?
One, a 26-year-old named Monique, claimed to have made $1,000 weeklyselling cocaine - "mostly to Caucasians" - before going to jail for fivemonths; she wanted help finding legitimate work. Most of the women I've talkedto still need drug treatment. But this gets us to a huge problem - the waitfor in-patient treatment for the under-insured or uninsured. One woman saidthat, 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'tdeliver a treatment slot for several weeks. We still don't have enough fundsfor treatment on demand. A piece of the state budget surplus should be used tofinally 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 $10to $15 an hour. The company received several applications from men who hadcontacted The Sun. Several men have found jobs through Goodwill of theChesapeake's ex-offender program, and others are working through STRIVEBaltimore to get job interviews.
Does The Sun hire ex-offenders?
Most companies that do so resist making a fuss about it, and that includesThe Sun. A criminal record is not a bar to employment here, according to PatKlemans, director of human resources, who says the nature of the offense andwhen it occurred are taken into account. The Sun has relationships withMaryland New Directions for Women, Goodwill Industries and five other agenciesfor recruitment purposes. A former drug addict, Steve Dixon, wrote in ane-mail: "When I first got clean, I sold the Sunpaper on the corner of Broadwayand 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 readeroffered bus fare to help ex-offenders get to job interviews. The Baltimorechapter of the American Institute of Wine & Food donated $1,000 to MoveableFeast to support the culinary training program it offers to men and womenlooking for a new career path. (Former drug dealer Harry Calloway, amongothers, is in that program now.) I could get in a lot of trouble with apartial list of non-profits deserving donations. So, let me suggest a visit tothe Web site of the city's ex-offender initiative, http://www.oedworks.com/exoffender.htm. Look for the resource guide; it lists dozens of agenciesinvolved in this effort.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun