At 8 a.m. Thursday, a team of volunteer garbage men wearing fluorescent orange shirts saying “Operation Baltimore Cleanup” walked down Monroe Street in West Baltimore picking up trash.
Within an hour, two of the volunteers were administering naloxone antidotes to two men who appeared to be overdosing on opioids, just three blocks from where Freddie Gray was arrested in 2015.
The garbage men had just arrived from New York and Florida pledging to clean up Baltimore after the city’s garbage issues came under national scrutiny following President Donald Trump’s controversial tweets last month.
“I started searching [online for] #Baltimore,” said John Rourke, CEO of All American Sanitation, who helped organize the trip. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.” He searched a Google Street View image of Baltimore and focused his efforts on where he saw the most trash.
Rourke, who served 16 years with the U.S. Army, called up some other veterans and friends, he said. One donated clothes. Another, a garbage truck. They set up Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages under the name “The Traveling Trash Men.”
Shortly after he started picking up trash Thursday, Clint Scherb, 32, saw two young men struggling to walk down the street. He watched them and thought they looked as if they were on drugs.
A former deputy for the Palm Beach County sheriff’s office, Scherb saw one pass out on the ground and the other slump over on some stairs.
Scherb checked their pulses. They were slow. And then nothing, he said.
An Easterwood neighborhood resident who had been watching came over with Narcan, a brand of naloxone. Scherb and Joe Rivieccio, 38, a volunteer from Jupiter, Florida, administered it as Baltimore Police arrived and the two men apparently suffering from an overdose regained consciousness.
“If we had not come here and the locals hadn’t had Narcan, they would have died,” Scherb said.
Rivieccio said, "We came here to do one thing, and God blessed us with another.”
The men distanced themselves from Trump’s tweets, but also credited them for getting the Traveling Trash Men to West Baltimore.
“He was so over-the-top,” Rourke said of the president’s remarks. “You would want him to be more presidential. But it was so over-the-top that it got my attention. I wouldn’t have known about it otherwise. It got me here."
As they continued to pick up piles of trash along Monroe Street Thursday morning, Rourke was appalled by the state of parts of the city.
“I didn’t know that a city in the United States could be this bad. I’ve seen cities in Iraq cleaner than here. Cities shouldn’t be this bad," he said.
One block down the street, Baltimore resident Terry Johnson, 63, picked weeds along a sidewalk. He has been cleaning the area for local businesses for three years, he said. He said he appreciated the volunteers, but said, “It’s sad that they have to go outside and bring people here,” he said. “They should employ more people in the city that need work.”
The men, who will be cleaning streets in Baltimore until Saturday, hope their efforts will be carried forward by local residents after they leave.
“There are all types of craziness in this world,” Rivieccio said. He added he hopes public and private organizations will convene to help West Baltimore. “It starts with one person helping another and blossoms from that.”
Some of the men volunteering Thursday had heard of Gray, the man who in 2015 was arrested in the area and died from injuries suffered while in police custody. Gray had been trying to turn his life around after several small-time drug arrests. He had suffered from lead poisoning growing up in a row home not far from where the men stood. His family settled a lawsuit they had filed against a landlord alleging that lead paint in the house resulted in “permanent injury to their nerves and nervous system and permanent brain damage,” according to the court records. Protests erupted after Gray’s death, and violence spiked.
West Baltimore residents living in the 21217 ZIP code, where the men were working, have experienced violence that is unfathomable to most U.S. residents. More than 345 people have been shot and injured, and an additional 179 people have been killed there since 2015, according to The Baltimore Sun’s online crime database.
“It’s a microcosm that started the uproar, but it’s the underlying issue that gets the pot boiling,” said Rivieccio upon hearing of the uprising. “The underlying issues being mental health, addiction and poverty. These are problems not just here, but nationwide.”