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Baltimore City

As Pigtown grapples with used needles, a resident teams up with women’s center to clean up parts of the community

Two months ago, while Diante Edwards was walking his two dogs, near the corner of South Arlington Street and James Street in Pigtown, a needle stuck his foot through his shoe.

“I had to go to the doctor, get a blood test and all that, and get evaluated to make sure that everything was OK,” said Edwards, 29.

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His lab results came back negative, but he worries others may have the same scary — and potentially expensive — experience.

The incident happened soon after Edwards, president of the Southwest Baltimore neighborhood organization Citizens of Pigtown, submitted a grant proposal for $16,100 to the South Baltimore Gateway Partnership to provide needle disposal bins for the neighborhood.

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He decided to apply for the grant, which was approved in April, after seeing the proliferation of used needles in his neighborhood where he often walks Titan, a 7-year-old Cane Corso, and Pandora, a 1-year-old Siberian husky, proliferate.

The project is a partnership between Pigtown and the nonprofit SPARC Women’s Center, short for Sex workers, Promoting Action, Risk reduction and Community mobilization.

Based on community feedback, the groups will find locations that need needle disposal bins and install the bins — which will offer educational brochures about how to properly dispose syringes, Edwards said.

SPARC, which already does needle cleanup in the neighborhood, will oversee ongoing maintenance of the bins, including disposing of the needles properly.

Edwards was born and raised in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and after high school joined the U.S. Navy in 2012. Both his parents served in the Navy, but he described his upbringing as unstable. After living with his mom and stepfather for a while, he had to move in with his grandmother as a high school freshman.

“Growing up, I was not from a wealthy family. We were pretty destitute I would say,” he said. “There were times we were light on food, and that was a tough life to live. So, I kinda saw the military as a way to work — have a steady job.”

Stationed at Fort Meade starting in 2018, Edwards moved nearly five years ago to Pigtown, where he owns a three-story, three bedroom house.

He said he picked Pigtown, west of Camden Yards across Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, because it’s friendly. The neighborhood also allowed him to get involved — something that appealed to him about Baltimore overall.

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“When I was looking at houses, people who live in the neighborhood would just come up to me and talk to me; they would say, ‘Hello’ on the street. They would smile,” said Edwards, who left the Navy in April and now works as an intelligence consultant for Booz Allen Hamilton at Fort Meade.

The Baltimore Police Department declined The Baltimore Sun’s request for which blocks in Pigtown receive numerous calls about drug activity. There were three homicides in Pigtown in 2019 and two in 2020, according to Baltimore Open Data.

Providing clean needles and reducing syringe littering will diminish medical harm from continued drug use, said Aaron Greenblatt, assistant professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine and a medical director at the University of Maryland Medical Center Addiction Treatment Programs.

Debris and trash plague some corners of Pigtown, said Shira Goodman, director of the nonprofit Pigtown Community Garden. Her goal is to clean up the neighborhood because drug use often occurs in areas with vacant houses, she said.

Her staff has found needles in alleys and on the corner of Ostend Street where the garden is located ― and where children often play in the streets, she said.

“Drug use and drugs in general are a huge problem in Baltimore — and not just in Baltimore, a lot of places in the U.S.,” Goodman said. “So, if there’s one small thing we can do, which is help with needle cleanup, that’s better than we were before.”

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Candice Myers, who owns a two-bedroom house in Pigtown, said she has not seen a syringe in the neighborhood.

While she said she supports the project, she wants clean needles and recovery programs for drug users.

“It’s really a public safety issue for them to not have a place for them to dispose,” Myers said. “If they’re on the ground, children may pick them up, or something crazy happens.”

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Troy Wilson, who has lived in Pigtown for 15 years, said needle littering is an issue there, but he doesn’t support the project because he worries providing needle disposal could increase drug usage. What people who use drugs need, he said, is mental health care.

“It’s a good idea to give kids condoms. They can have protected sex. Regardless, you give them condoms, they’re gonna have sex,” he said. “Whether you give people a place to dispose, they’re still gonna shoot up and do drugs — just like condoms.”

But the data suggests otherwise.

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“Nearly 30 years of research has shown that comprehensive [syringe services programs] are safe, effective, and cost-saving, do not increase illegal drug use or crime, and play an important role in reducing the transmission of viral hepatitis, HIV and other infections,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Edwards said the project won’t create a safe space for people to use drugs.

“What it is doing is allowing [people] to safely dispose of their materials to the greater benefit of the larger community,” he said.

This article is part of our Newsmaker series, which profiles notable people in the Baltimore region who are having an impact in our diverse communities. If you’d like to suggest someone who should be profiled, please send their name and a short description of what they are doing to make a difference to: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Editor Kamau High at khigh@baltsun.com.

For the record

An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Aaron Greenblatt, a medical director at the University of Maryland Medical Center Addiction Treatment Programs. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.


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