West Baltimore: Death, Drugs, and Empty Homes

Baltimore death drugs empty homesIt could hardly feel more hip in downtown Baltimore, with the pedestrian bridges arching from pier to pier of the Inner Harbor, strewn with millennial mainstays such as Whole Foods, Shake Shack, and The Cheesecake Factory, overseen by the giant neon lights of the Hard Rock Cafe and traversed by sharp-dressed young men and women on app-rented electric scooters.

However, it’s only a 10-minute bus ride westward to one of the most depressed areas in America. There’s no buzz here. No scooters. In fact, on some blocks, there’s barely a living soul.

“You got to be really strong here,” said Danny (not his real name), an owner of a small grocery store in one of the most notorious West Baltimore neighborhoods.

Some blocks away, in the middle of the day, a man is sitting on the stairs in front of one of the row houses, thousands of which stand empty and neglected, as the city bleeds residents. He said if somebody stands there and talks to him, police think he’s selling drugs.

A man several blocks away intimated that he used to be a drug dealer. He said youth in the area are going ”crazy” because the government shut down recreation facilities long ago. Everybody used to comingle at those places, he said, and people had to behave themselves if they didn’t want to be kicked out. That actually helped people get along.

Now, he said, people are just depressed. Youth with nothing to do are killing each other. It was also a bad idea, he said, to combine elementary and middle schools, exposing younger children to bad influences from teenagers.

The government is more interested in giving opportunities to new immigrants than helping the people already here, he said. A few other locals expressed a similar sentiment.

Several blocks away, two young men, perhaps 18 years old, stood on a street corner with a younger boy, perhaps 13. It wasn’t clear what they were talking about, but it seemed one of the older ones was chastising the boy, telling him to work harder. A bunch of cash in the young man’s hand offered a clue. Danny explained that some young adults are making younger boys sell drugs for them, since the young ones are likely to get more lenient treatment when busted. He didn’t want his name published for fear of retaliation.

Three times somebody has tried to break into his store. Once, he punched a man who was trying to steal from him. The man left, called the police, and Danny was almost arrested himself.

“The city, they don’t do nothing. Not even the cops. Instead of helping you, they’re against you,” he said.

He showed a trash-strewn area behind his store used by drug addicts. Pointing to the debris on the ground, he explained that the small pieces of glass are crack cocaine vials. The small ones go for $10 each, the larger ones for $20—apparently common knowledge for a small business owner in the area.

“I don’t like it here,” he said, his eyes welling with tears as he remembered his family that he left behind years ago in another city, another state.

Still, he has hope.

Crime in Baltimore

The city has long had a crime problem, but it was gradually getting better. In 2011, it saw 197 homicides—a shocking number given its modest size, but still the lowest since 1977.

That all changed on April 12, 2015. Six police officers failed to secure Freddie Gray, 25, in the back of a police van after his arrest for illegal knife possession. Gray’s neck was broken during the ride to the police station. A week later, shortly before Gray died at a hospital, activists gathered to protest in front of the police station. His name was used to bolster the narrative that police were killing black people out of racial prejudice on a national scale—an assertion that’s disputed by research.

In the weeks ahead, the protests escalated into riots. More than a dozen police officers were injured; some stores were looted and burned. Maryland Gov. Lawrence Hogan deployed the National Guard to the city and, for several days, imposed a curfew. The protests died down after State Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced that the officers involved would be charged.

But something in the city changed. Homicides jumped from 15 in March to 22 in April and a whopping 42 in May, remaining unusually high thereafter. The body count reached 344 in 2015—a number only surpassed by the record year of 1993.

More recently, city leaders made a big deal of the crime wave’s abating in 2018, but the numbers are up again this year, on par with 2015’s carnage. Baltimore is, hands down, the most violent city with a population above 500,000.

Not all of Baltimore is like this, though. Many areas in the south, east, and north of the city are virtually free of such lawlessness.

On the contrary, the homicide rate in the West Baltimore zip code, with only about 25,000 residents, was 134.7 per 100,000 in 2018—more than 25 times the national average. With 25 slayings this year so far, the area is on pace for yet another record.

The most affected neighborhoods appear to be Carrollton Ridge (four homicides this year) and Franklin Square (five homicides) in the west and Sandtown-Winchester (six slayings this year) in the northwest.


Much of the recent crime wave has been blamed on the police disengaging, jaded by a lack of support from city leadership. They still respond to 911 calls, but don’t go out of their way to intervene as much as before.

“What officers are doing is, they’re just driving looking forward,” Kevin Forrester, a retired Baltimore detective, told the USA Today in 2017. “They’ve got horse blinders on.”

After Gray’s death, the Obama Justice Department forced the city into a consent decree (pdf) that, among other things, demanded more detailed paperwork for every stop-and-frisk by the officers. It also forbade them from using only “boilerplate” language, such as “proximity to the scene of suspected or reported crimes” in the paperwork. Arrests for low-level crimes, such as disorderly conduct, now must be cleared with a supervisor first, “unless not practicable.”

The concern was that officers were stopping and arresting people for no good reason. It’s not clear, though, how much the increased administrative burden helped.

Moreover, training on how to conduct and document stops and arrests in line with the decree has only been planned for this year. The more substantive reforms, such as moving toward community policing, are set to begin next year or even further in the future. So far, it seems officers are just avoiding the paperwork by conducting fewer stops and arrests.

Michael Harrison, who has been police commissioner since March, is the fourth person in the role since the beginning of 2018. He’s a veteran of the New Orleans Police Department, which he headed during that city’s own consent decree process.

He recently announced a “crime plan” for Baltimore that calls for focusing on areas where violent crime is concentrated, checking in more frequently with local businesses, engaging more with the community, cutting response time to a maximum of 10 minutes, and more.

The local police union slammed the plan as untenable. “There are not enough Officers to even respond to the number of calls to 911,” Sgt. Mike Mancuso, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, said in a July 30 statement.

Since 2017, the department has lost more than 400 officers and other staff. That’s a major hit for a 3,000-strong agency.

“Any crime plan must begin with the stark reality of the current resources available, not the resources that are desired,” Mancuso said. “Those resources must certainly include Police Officers!”

Deeper Causes

It goes without saying that Baltimore’s problems go way beyond an understaffed police department. As with Chicago, the breeding ground for the violence in Baltimore was paradoxically fertilized by the arrests of prominent gang leaders in the past decade, according to Patrick Burke, a reporter and expert on gang violence. The perception of lawlessness during the 2015 riots then emboldened the gangs’ underlings to take matters into their own hands. With the top-down control dissolved, profit and personal grudges took priority as they went on to try and kill their foes. The downward spiral of vengeance ensued.

What makes the youth join gangs in the first place? Depression, isolation, and bad incentives, it seems. There’s really not much to do for young people in the city’s most troubled neighborhoods. Sports centers and hobby clubs are few. Schools don’t provide much hope, either. Less than 18 percent of Baltimore public school students are proficient in math. Only about 25 percent are proficient in English by the time they get to high school. (pdf).

Many children in the neighborhood are “not guided,” Danny said. “Nobody’s investing in them.”

The culture of gangs and drugs, on the other hand, is already generational and the opportunities abound.

The surroundings aren’t a pretty sight, either.

Empty Homes

The city has more than 16,000 uninhabitable houses, concentrated in the crime-ridden areas. Often decrepit eyesores, the deserted century-old row houses lend their blocks a bleak, forsaken air. They add to the crime too—a refuge to drug addicts, a hideout for criminals. And then there’s the fire hazard. The homeless often sneak in and use candles. While they tend not to care much for fire safety, they care even less while on drugs.

Fires abound, said David, a 15-year veteran of the city’s fire department, who declined to provide his last name. There’s been an arsonist-at-large in the area for a year as well, David said. Just a few days ago, that person set 11 vacant houses on fire in one night. Moreover, battling the blazes in these buildings is extra dangerous for the firefighters and injuries are common, he said. Just recently, a colleague of his was buried under a collapsed ceiling.

In the past, Baltimore’s declining population has been blamed on blockbusting real estate schemes, as well as the collapse of its steel industry and manufacturing. But those trains have long departed. Today, the residents just seem to be voting with their feet.

What to do about the empty houses then? “Fix them up and put people in them,” one of the locals suggested. But it’s not that simple.

Houses in the neighborhood are already dirt-cheap, going for as little as $6,000 for those that need substantial repairs. But rents are still surprisingly high, around $1,000 a month or more, utilities not included. Locals largely rent. With their credit low or nonexistent, they can’t quite put the money together to buy a home. And if they do, they’d rather move to the safer suburbs. Another factor is that the city’s property tax is more than twice as high as in surrounding counties and even further above the rest of the state, giving yet more incentive to leave to anybody lucky enough to climb into the middle class.

There are millennials moving in, interested in the urban lifestyle, but they huddle around the downtown area, where their jobs are.

Islands of Hope

Danny believes the city will turn around. Even his neighborhood, eventually.

“It’s getting better, but it takes time,” he said. “It’s going to be like Boston within maybe five years.”

He pointed to big players such as John Hopkins Hospital and the Maryland Institute College of Art that are buying and fixing real estate around their campuses. But they are expected to rent to their own staff, rather than locals. It’s also not clear whether the rejuvenation efforts will reach Danny’s neighborhood in the foreseeable future.

Some of the most dangerous people in the area are gone too, Danny said. But that’s because they either moved, went to prison, or were killed, he added.

To fix the fabric of the community itself is a different story. That’s not to say there aren’t people trying, though. The Wilkens Ave. Mennonite Church has run a food donation program for the past three years; a farmer from Pennsylvania drives in a truck of fruit and vegetables every week and locals pay $20 for the whole season or need to volunteer three times to get the food. Rather than dependency, the initiative promotes commitment and gratitude, not to mention a healthier diet.

The church has run a school too. It started in the 1990s to take in some of the children who were, at the time, often dropping out after sixth grade. It costs just $25 a month, due to outside donations. Here, the teachers care about the children learning, while at a public school, they didn’t, one of the students said.

The government is helping too, here and there. It tears down some of the worst abandoned houses, for instance. But it’s a months-long process. For the most part, locals were under the impression that City Hall was doing nothing for them.

One of the local prostitutes who roam the streets around the church once attended its service. Linda Johnson, a longtime member of the church, felt a calling to talk to her. She got to know the girl and eventually took her in. She fed her, cared for her, even performed an exorcism for the girl. After nine months, she left. Then later, she returned to the church to say thank you. She looked healthy and said she was able to get her children back.

“You need to acknowledge people,” Johnson said. “They’re worth something.”

Reprinted with permission from - The Epoch Times - by Petr Svab

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I live 10 minutes from downtown Baltimore. I rarely drive into the city like most residences outside of the city. The article is right on. So much crime, gangs, heroin use, teenagers running wild through the city attacking mostly white people and the city government and police just hide and do not expose the problem for what it is. Elijah Cummings, senator, is a joke of a politician. He has done nothing for Baltimore city for 30 years,. also the mayors have been corrupt and horrible. The biggest problem is there are all black and the black voters continue to elect and re-elect these clowns only because they are BLACK. Call it for what it is. The best Mayor was William Donald schaffer. He resurrected Baltimore city and created the inner harbor. He later was elected Governor for 8 years and did wonderful things for Maryland. Yes he was a… Read more »

Randall benson

Start by cleaning up the REAL garbage, E. Cummings, then find out what he has been doing with the 14 BILLION dollars he received last year alone for YOUR city.

Rick J.

If something good comes out of this, Baltimore should thank President Trump.

Stephen Russell

Baltimore solutions:
o Raze area if NO historical value.
o Clear land for new
o Have gangs clear debris, trash & rats.
o Poll residents, tourists on area.
o Online, PO mail polls.
o Redev city
o Purge City Gvt
o Recall Cummings.
o New blood,
o Change policies, politics.
Or As IS stays,
Gangs on probation for Community Service.
Recall Mayor & city staff.
OK Residents balls in your court.

Frank S.

People need to stop the “blame game” and “victimization game”–hard to do if that’s all you’ve been brought up on, but necessary if there is to be real change for the positive. People need to take personal responsibility, Don’t do drugs, don’t have unprotected sex, don’t drop out of school, don’t vote for corrupt and/or stupid politicians. Work with the police and local churches. Government and businesses can help by providing smart, well thought out incentives to encourage more business, job training and employment. But understand, there is no magic pill here. It will be hard and it will take time. Only throwing more money at it is certainly not the answer–that is just more wasted money going into the wrong pockets. Progressivism will fail every time. Good old fashioned conservativism and hard work almost always works. I look forward to the day when black America returns to their conservative… Read more »

Paul W

Democrat/leftist governance is largely to blame for the complete mess that West Baltimore has become. With that being said, from the article. ” Youth with nothing to do are killing each other.” Government can only do so much to change that mentality. The lack of family structure plays an enormous role in this kind of attitude. Parental responsibility is lacking. I sympathize with the squalor that these people must deal with. For improvement to occur, however, the citizens need to vote the bad politicians out. Our tax money is being squandered and wasted by the current city and federal politicians. In addition to voting for responsible officials, parents must become more engaged in instilling moral and legal ideals in their children. As hard as it is under those conditions, people of West Baltimore can’t just look away–regarding politics and raising their children. It won’t be easy, but it’s the only… Read more »


I used to live in Laurel MD and we would occasionally drive into Baltimore to get lunch at the Inner Harbor and go see the National Aquarium. Now I won’t go near the place. If you make a mistake in navigation and go five minutes in the wrong direction you could easily be robbed and shot by the thugs and drug dealers who own the inner city. This is typical of the big cities (New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, Washington DC, etc.) under the corrupt, misguided and incompetent leadership of the Democrat-Socialist Party. Now these corrupt lunatics, under the guidance of “Occasionally Active Cortex” and her anti-American and pro-Islamic Terrorist “Squad” propose to greatly expand their “Welfare Empire” and provide free everything for everybody. Representative Elijah Cummings, the local Congressman, is all in favor of higher taxes, more welfare hand-out’s and free passage across our border for whatever… Read more »


More obstruction, destruction and division by Obama an ccd the Muslims. A.K.A DEMOCRATS.

Mary Seres

What about the fact that Elihah Cummings wife has a 501 (C) organization that raises millions of dollars that is suppose help lift people up out of poverty, educate, etc with millions of dollars and has another company thst the IRS is investigating as well.
Interesting that the Cummings pair are majing millions of dollars yet in his district
People are literally dying and suffering which was happening in 1999 according to Mr. Cummings himself.

Brenda Blunt

Very sad that those politicians would rather provide for illegals instead of their very own . This is what would happen if socialism will look like. Another reason to promote capitalism! If those politicians don’t like it, they can leave the USA and go elsewhere!!


As a taxpayer, I want to know where all these billions of dollars went that we sent there over the years. I suspect right into some people`s back pockets.


All Democrap run cities are cesspools.

Paul DAscenz

Senator Cummings, Before you Through Down on the President of the United States. Your, District should be taken better care of. You’ve been squandering fiunds meant to rebuild old Baltimore, Maryland! This is a disgrace. These are Black People, who voted for you. Stop attacking President Trump and focus on West Baltimore!!!!


It is a shame all big cities have this problem some are brought on buy the people they don’t take care of their own living space others are parents not caring what their kids do as long as they are leaving them alone and others the government neglect to pad their own pockets, stealing is ramped in cities bu that’s another problem the people let happen seen it hear in Mi. They know their elected politicians are stealing lying and using money for themselves or family members but still keep electing them back in office when they need to be Fired, Fined to pay back what they stole, Prosecuted, Banned for life never allowed to work in government of any kind including Law, they have to demand like I keep trying that politicians have to Tell the Truth if caught lying automatically FIRED, that is one of the reasons I… Read more »

Richard L. Tucker

Well, I’ll say this for Trump! He will definitely rattle some cages. I too wonder about all the money that was directed to help. And to think poor old Calijah has been in office 37 years.


It’s the inhabitants fault…. if you’re poor you don’t have to live like animals …. the buildings they ruined the trash and garbage they produced the crime They committed… excuse makers …. federal dollars being used
In a sink hole. People there are animals… they are parasites …. make their neighborhoods into wastelands then blame everybody but their filthy nasty selves….. cut the funding and programs and force these maggots to fend for themselves like the rest of us
No sympathy at all for these looting
Rioting blood suckers. Sick of hearing how bad they have it. I wish I got free housing free food free medical…. we are crazy to keep giving these parasites stuff…. face facts it will never change unless real people force these maggots to become human beings.
Sick of hearing these pity stories


I would bet all those empty houses have registered voters in them. This country has to clean up it’s election process to have voter ID.


Pretty rough story, what are chances for employment in Baltimore??? I really feel that most people would rather support themselves by working that have the govt. try to take care of them thru handouts. The answer is lift the people up to be educated & productive.


Victims have a strange relationship with their victimizers. They feed off of each other. Sick

Jean Barnes

Has anyone asked if some of this has to do with the structure of the state government, that being “Commonwealth?