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Call 311 for a dirty alley in Baltimore? City’s response depends on where you live

A Baltimore Sun analysis of the city’s 311 data shows a stark disparity in how quickly public works crews resolve complaints about dirty alleys, based on where the people who call with complaints live. Judy Taylor, 78, calls 311 often to report the dirty alley behind her rowhouse in Southwest Baltimore's Carrollton Ridge neighborhood.
A Baltimore Sun analysis of the city’s 311 data shows a stark disparity in how quickly public works crews resolve complaints about dirty alleys, based on where the people who call with complaints live. Judy Taylor, 78, calls 311 often to report the dirty alley behind her rowhouse in Southwest Baltimore's Carrollton Ridge neighborhood.(Talia Richman/Baltimore Sun)

Judy Taylor keeps track of every call she makes to 311, jotting down the date on a piece of lined paper that she keeps on her fridge. She frequently requests that city crews come to her Carrollton Ridge neighborhood to clear piles of trash from the alley behind her rowhouse: abandoned mattresses, overflowing plastic bags, discarded liquor bottles.

“I call and call and call,” says Taylor, 78.

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A Baltimore Sun analysis of city data shows that if a resident in southwestern Baltimore, where Taylor lives, calls the non-emergency help line to report a dirty alley, a resolution almost never comes by the recommended deadline of seven business days. That’s a stark contrast to the city’s southeastern area, where nearly 100% of “dirty alley” requests are completed on time.

Baltimore — the first city to deploy 311 as a non-emergency request center — fields thousands of calls for broken streetlights, graffiti removal and illegal dumping. Alley cleanup is among the most common requests.

The dirty alleys in the city garnered national attention this summer when Fox News ran footage of blight and trash in West Baltimore, sparking a White House tweetstorm in which Republican President Donald Trump called Baltimore “disgusting" and “rat and rodent infested.” Residents criticized the president’s verbal assault on their hometown, but some also said the city hadn’t done enough to clean up their neighborhoods.

To respond to 311 calls related to trash, debris and other litter problems, the Department of Public Works’ Bureau of Solid Waste divided the city into five geographic sections it called quadrants. Each area got a division chief and resources to respond to service requests streaming in from the neighborhoods in their section.

Even when the system was set up in 2017, city officials acknowledged that the broadly drawn southwestern area, stretching from Leakin Park along Baltimore’s western border to Curtis Bay, was home to several hot spots for illegal dumping and other deep-rooted challenges with blight and grime. It already had a long backlog of service requests. To anticipate that extra need, they planned to send four crews to respond to cleanup calls in the area, while other sections of the city would get three crews.

But staffing shortages from the start hampered the plan to direct more crews toward the neighborhoods that needed them most.

From Jan. 1 to Oct. 31 this year, data show the only part of town that came close to getting its 311 dirty-alley requests cleaned up on time was the department’s southeastern section.

For some residents, including Taylor, it’s another indicator of how their ZIP code dictates the city’s level of investment.

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Raymond Winbush, director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University, said he’s long heard complaints from black residents who feel 311 isn’t designed to help them. It’s impossible to look at the way different neighborhoods are treated, he said, and not see the effects of structural racism and classism.

“I’ve heard for years people say, ‘I didn’t call 311 because that’s the line for white people,’ " Winbush said.

City Council President Brandon Scott plans to introduce a resolution at Monday’s meeting that calls for representatives from 311 Services and the Department of Public Works to appear before the council and explain the disparities in response time.

The city is aware of the discrepancy in cleanup service, and officials say they’re working to send more resources toward the southwestern area, where they say the need is most significant.

When Democrat Bernard C. “Jack” Young became mayor in May, he decided to make fighting grime one of his priorities.

He launched “CleanStat” this summer, directing his innovation office to develop a data-driven look at how effectively the city deals with trash, littering and illegal dumping. It’s an outgrowth of Baltimore government’s “CitiStat” approach of using performance data from various agencies, notably the police department, to gauge effectiveness and progress.

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One of the first things the office did was map the 311 response time data by neighborhood. The goal was to ensure that all neighborhoods get the same level of service.

“One of the things we’re trying to do throughout CleanStat is look at equity,” said Sheryl Goldstein, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff for operations. “Everybody wants to do better. Not only do we need more equitable service, but we need better service throughout the city.”

As with The Sun’s analysis, the city’s map showed only neighborhoods in the southeastern section were getting consistent help for their 311 calls about dirty alleys. (City officials verify the data by spot-checking requests to ensure they’re closed or are in progress, as reported by workers.)

Officials plan to make their CleanStat website public, allowing people to look up how many requests are received and how quickly crews are dealing with them.

Since identifying the trend in September, the city has shifted more resources to the southwestern portion of the city. Officials redirected two crews from other quadrants to cleaning up neighborhoods in the southwestern district, and sent workers in on overtime on the weekends to resolve backlogged requests. The goal is to clear overdue requests by January, and make progress on improving the on-time response rate in 2020.

They also plan to see whether there are any lessons to be learned from how the southeastern quadrant operates that can be emulated in other parts of the city.

Officials said there was no intention to provide preferential treatment to residents of that area.

“The different quadrants have different challenges,” Goldstein said. “One of the things we’re looking at through CleanStat is what staffing looks like and whether there needs to be adjustments to what the staffing levels are."

There are several factors contributing to the disparate response times, Goldstein said. The level of work associated with each 311 call isn’t equal, with some being much more labor-intensive than others.

There aren’t necessarily more requests for dirty alley service coming from these neighborhoods. For instance, residents of Patterson Park in the southeastern section made 580 requests for a cleanup in the period analyzed by The Sun. All were completed on time, according to the database. This section of the city is home to several predominantly white, wealthier neighborhoods like Fells Point and Canton, though there are large swaths of the quadrant that are more racially and economically diverse, including areas of deep poverty.

Residents of Carrollton Ridge, a much poorer community dotted with vacant houses, made 320 calls in the first 10 months of the year. Just 5% were answered on time. The southwestern section includes many predominantly black neighborhoods, including Harlem Park and Cherry Hill. Many of the areas in this swath of the city have dealt with years of disinvestment, and are near the areas Trump and his supporters focused on when decrying conditions in the city.

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Taylor says she does her part to keep the streets near her home clean. But she needs city crews to do some of the heavy lifting. While she’s not responsible for the vacant houses on her block or dumping trash bags on the ground, she lives with the consequences: a putrid stench and plenty of rats.

Taylor called 311 at the end of September about a dirty alley. She was told a cleanup was due Oct. 8. She checked in with the city Oct. 22 because the trash remained, littering the alley to the point where she had to use her cane to shove debris out of the way to create a path to walk. She says the only information the person who answered the phone gave her was a tracking number for the request.

She hopes the city’s renewed focus on her neighborhood this fall makes a change, but after years of asking 311 operators to send assistance, Taylor feels “there’s almost no sense of calling."

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