Baltimore needs help, but it’s not help­less

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NATION & WORLD -

We of­fer our thanks to the vol­un­teers from out of state who came to Baltimore to clear trash and found them­selves help­ing save two ap­par­ent over­dose vic­tims. They were here to do a good deed and wound up do­ing an even bet­ter one.

The in­ci­dent comes amid a pe­riod of great na­tional scrutiny of Baltimore’s prob­lems, fu­eled by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s tweets mock­ing the city, and it says a cou­ple of things about the true na­ture of what’s go­ing on here that much of the na­tional dis­cus­sion has missed.

First, one of the vol­un­teers hap­pened to be a for­mer po­lice of­fi­cer who knew how to ad­min­is­ter the anti-over­dose med­i­ca­tion nalox­one be­cause the opi­oid epi­demic is a prob­lem ev­ery­where — in Florida and New York, where the vol­un­teers came from, in big cities, in sub­urbs and in rural com­mu­ni­ties. The prob­lem may be par­tic­u­larly con­cen­trated in some parts of Baltimore, but its char­ac­ter is the same ev­ery­where.

Sec­ond, the rea­son the vol­un­teer was able to ad­min­is­ter nalox­one and pos­si­bly save two lives is that a Baltimore res­i­dent on the scene hap­pened to have some on hand. That’s not a co­in­ci­dence. Baltimore’s health depart­ment has been at the fore­front na­tion­ally in try­ing to make nalox­one as widely avail­able as pos­si­ble and to train res­i­dents in its use. The city was an early adopter of the harm re­duc­tion strat­egy for cop­ing with ad­dic­tion, and Baltimore is home to a wide va­ri­ety of in­sti­tu­tions ded­i­cated to ad­vanc­ing the prac­tice of ad­dic­tion treat­ment. We haven’t solved the prob­lem, but we have shown courage in our will­ing­ness to try new ap­proaches.

All that stands in con­trast to a nar­ra­tive that has de­vel­oped dur­ing the last few weeks of a city that is bro­ken and hope­less, in­ured to the dis­as­ter all around. For­mer House Speaker Newt Gin­grich en­cap­su­lated that idea in a two-part, 3,200-word essay he pub­lished on his web­site this week, in which he opines, “I think it is vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble to re­form the cur­rent Baltimore sys­tem. The cor­rup­tion is too great, the bu­reau­cra­cies are too pow­er­ful, the cul­ture of de­spair and de­pen­dency is too wide­spread, and the stun­ning de­cen­tral­iza­tion of au­thor­ity and ac­tivism is too great.”

What we need, Mr. Gin­grich gets around to telling us in Part II, is a “Baltimore app.” He imag­ines a smart­phone-based por­tal for res­i­dents for all pub­lic ser­vices, from busi­ness cre­ation to re­port­ing crime. It would pro­vide a way for in­di­vid­u­als to mea­sure city-wide out­comes. It would let peo­ple go through the steps to start a busi­ness “at night and on week­ends at their con­ve­nience in­stead of the bu­reau­crats’ con­ve­nience.”

Done and done, from the 311 app to an on­line busi­ness for­ma­tion por­tal to the Open Baltimore data site. Pay youth to fix up play­grounds and parks? Yep, we do that. Im­ple­ment Guiu­liani-style polic­ing and save thou­sands of lives? Tried it. We wound up with ram­pant po­lice bru­tal­ity com­plaints, tens of thou­sands of peo­ple with crim­i­nal records for petty of­fenses and, even­tu­ally, a riot. Oh, and crime ac­tu­ally dropped to its low­est point after we re­nounced zero tol­er­ance.

We are not cap­tive to a cor­rupt political sys­tem. We know our govern­ment needs to do bet­ter. That’s why we re­placed nearly the en­tire City Coun­cil in the last elec­tion, and that’s why we forced our last mayor out of of­fice six weeks after the first hint of her malfea­sance came to light.

We wel­come new ideas, but it is a mis­take to think we have none of our own. Baltimore has a pro­fu­sion of non-profits, think tanks, foun­da­tions and vol­un­teer groups that work on ed­u­ca­tion, hous­ing, crime, ad­dic­tion, poverty, health dis­par­i­ties — you name it. We are not re­signed to our prob­lems but con­stantly try­ing new ideas to ad­dress them, with char­ter schools, Safe Streets, early child­hood ed­u­ca­tion, fam­ily build­ing non-profits, pro­grams that marry skills train­ing with blight elim­i­na­tion, and on and on.

Baltimore needs help, heaven knows, but we are not help­less.

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