Hopelessness and Heroin — What Fueled the Baltimore Riots, and What Now?

A grotesque cycle of poverty, drugs and incarceration confronts the Church in Baltimore, which is coming to grips with its own failures and need to reassess how it can give hope to a deeply wounded city.

Baltimore on May 1, 2015
Baltimore on May 1, 2015 (photo: Addie Mena/CNA)

BALTIMORE — As Baltimore works to recover from riots and protests after the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, the Church is working to reach a wounded community with a long history of pain and little hope.

Baltimore “is a place of many strengths, a lot of beauty, a lot of goodness, but it also has long-standing systemic problems,” Archbishop William Lori told Catholic News Agency.

The city erupted in anger after Gray, an African-American, died April 19 of severe spinal and neck injuries sustained while in police custody. His death sparked mass protests and some violent riots, but those who live in the city say that rather than being an isolated tragedy, it was the climax of decades of social and economic turmoil.

Interviews with Baltimore residents, former residents, volunteer workers and Catholic leaders produce a mosaic of anger, hurt and frustration. Many citizens say they are fed up with unemployment, drugs, poor housing and education, racism, policing tactics and child hunger.

Baltimore has the fifth-highest murder rate of any major city, according to the FBI’s statistics on crime and as reported by The Baltimore Sun. The child poverty rate is 36.5%, according to a 2014 report by the Maryland Alliance for the Poor.

Deep-rooted social problems have poisoned Baltimore’s heart, and residents on the fringes who suffer the most doubt if anyone is listening or if anyone cares.


Overlooked and Forgotten

Catholics provide many services to the needy in the city, including employment training, food banks, education and housing. Yet they openly admit there is a very long way to go to cure the city’s ills.

“I think we need to reassess our priorities of what we’re investing in currently,” Bill McCarthy, executive director of Catholic Charities Baltimore, acknowledged to CNA.

For instance, many families rely on schools and Head Start programs to provide food for their children during the day. With school closings, hunger is becoming an issue and one that is “overlooked,” he said.

Baltimore is sometimes described as two different cities. The downtown glistens with high-rise office buildings, hotels, restaurants, an indoor market, an attractive waterfront and clean parks.

A few subway stops away is what locals call the largest open-air heroin market in the country. Abandoned houses abound. Drug deals take place in broad daylight on street corners. The grocery stores sell food that spoils the next day. High unemployment keeps men on the streets, and mass incarcerations change the trajectory of many young men’s lives.

What is this tale of two cities? And why? A trip to Sandtown, epicenter of the violent April 27 riots, might provide some answers. The unemployment rate is near 50%, and 1 in 3 houses are abandoned, according to PrisonPolicy.org. Six in 10 eligible residents did not complete high school.

Days after the riots, volunteers clean up from a food-bank distribution event at the historic St. Peter Claver parish. A helicopter circles above, and an armored car passes the church, evidence that the horror of April 27 — riots that decimated businesses, including a planned senior-citizen community center in flames — still rings fresh.


Wounded by Closed Catholic Schools

Ray Kelly, a parish-council member, makes the time to talk. He and his fellow parishioners voice fears that West Baltimore has been forgotten.

“The Church is built on charity; the Church is the refuge for the poor,” said Kelly. He points to the church’s outreach to the neighborhood, including a food drive for hungry residents, while stores are closed, and the neighborhood has no access to fresh food.

“This is a dedicated African-American parish in the middle of Sandtown, and we struggle to do God’s work here,” he said. “But we know what’s right, and we know the blessings come from your charity, so we do everything we can.”

The parish is looking to the Church in the city for more help, he added.

“There’s a different need here in Sandtown than there is out in Pikesville,” Kelly said of the more affluent Baltimore suburb.

For the archdiocese “to reach out to us without first building us up to a position where we can be reached out to, it just seems like it should be against what the Church stands for.”

Parochial-school closings left a tragic and sore open wound in the community, which has no Catholic grade school. The children need a Catholic school to have “hope,” Kelly insisted.

“That would be what’s most important to me: getting another school.”


A Grotesque Cycle

The problems don’t stop at grade school, though. Once boys grow up to be men, they face grotesque enemies — such as drugs and unemployment — part of a vicious cycle that for many will include jail time.

Baltimore’s infamy as a booming heroin market resulted in a sharp crackdown, especially in Sandtown. Police relations with the community nosedived.

“When we see the police, it’s a tactical effort,” Kelly explained. “They’re coming to get; they’re coming to enforce. There is no engagement. There is no trust.”

Mass incarcerations fuele mass unemployment: Once young men are released from prison, many find it nearly impossible to get a job.

Over at Catholic Charities, McCarthy agreed. “It’s the way we treat re-entered citizens that have re-entered from prisons. It’s horrible,” he said.

Sometimes selling drugs appears to be the only recourse for a desperate young man, Kelly noted.

“When the landlord comes and says, ‘You have to have the rent by Friday,’ and you don’t have a job,” he explained, “you want to make that money as fast as you can. Around here, a viable source of income is selling heroin or selling [other] drugs out on the street corner.”

“You don’t even really have to invest in a house or anything: You can just put it in your pocket, come out and announce to everyone that you have it. I mean, open air, that’s the way it works, and this is the front line.”


Desperate for Hope

The overall unemployment rate for the entire Baltimore metropolitan area hovers around the national average, at 5.7%. But looks can be deceiving, just as a bustling downtown can mask the dry rot of a crumbled social structure just a few city blocks away.

As it works to pick up the pieces after the riots surrounding Gray’s death, the city without hope desperately needs a Church that preaches hope.

“I think the Church has to start with our young people,” said Father Robert Wojtek, a Redemptorist missionary and pastor of two parishes in the city, St. Patrick’s and Sacred Heart of Jesus.

“We can’t let these children and young people today who are experiencing this grow up with these memories dominating their lives and these same issues and the frustration. We have to be able to change those memories and those lives somehow.”

McCarthy sees a need for change as well. Catholic Charities provides housing to many senior citizens, but will aim to incorporate more needy young families into its program, for example.

“Frankly, what we need to do is sit down and listen to the community, to do more listening than talking, and take collective action based on what the common understanding of the priorities of the community are, instead of what we think the community needs,” he said.

“Well-intentioned people over the years, I think, have imposed themselves on communities or have entered communities. I think it’s more important that people are invited in as part of the community in order to affect change.”