"Would the gentleman in the back like to explain what he is doing here?" asked a slender man, who spoke with an exotic accent, looking at me from his seat along the wall.
I said I was one of many Baltimoreans who are "sick and tired" of the city's heroin-and-cocaine cancer, which was allowed to fester for decades - left horrendously under-treated until Peter Beilenson's time as city health commissioner - and which still accounts, directly or indirectly, for most of the crime, violence, family dysfunction, neighborhood blight, backed-up court dockets and crowded jails here. With some 40,000 addicts, how can we ever be "The Greatest City in America"?
So, on June 9, after another night of drug-related homicide, an open letter to dealers appeared in this space, asking them to quit the life and offering them help in finding other employment.
Since then, more than 200 men and women have called 410-332-6166 to take me up on the offer.
In addition to all the calls from former and current dealers and addicts, we've received numerous calls and letters from readers. Like the men in Thursday night's group, readers have felt free to recount their struggles and express their feelings. They also have questions. Here are some of the most frequently asked.
Who calls for help?
Mostly men, average age about 35. Half say they sold heroin or cocaine for several years, but never used those drugs, preferring, if anything, marijuana. The rest say they sold dope and coke to support their habits. One played basketball at College Park, then became a hardcore heroin dealer. Others held various blue-collar jobs while doing dope. Some never worked. All have criminal records that, they say, keep them from getting even low-paying jobs now. All express a desire to stay out of drug dealing.
Have any young guys asked for help?
Only a few. One, who was 19 and named Raynauld Watkins, called here in July, a few days after a boy he knew, 16-year-old Jawan Lee, was shot to death in a pizza shop in West Baltimore. (Follow-up calls to Watkins have not been returned.) There have been more calls from men in their 20s, like Tavon Tyner, profiled in this space on Father's Day. Tyner has enrolled in a course for his high school equivalency diploma.
Are women calling?
One, a 26-year-old named Monique, claimed to have made $1,000 weekly selling cocaine - "mostly to Caucasians" - before going to jail for five months; she wanted help finding legitimate work. Most of the women I've talked to still need drug treatment. But this gets us to a huge problem - the wait for in-patient treatment for the under-insured or uninsured. One woman said that, when she called an agency for help, she was told to keep calling back "until there was an open bed." She was in tears over a system that can't deliver a treatment slot for several weeks. We still don't have enough funds for treatment on demand. A piece of the state budget surplus should be used to finally make it a reality.
Are companies coming forward to offer jobs to drug dealers?
A few, most recently a demolition company seeking up to 10 workers at $10 to $15 an hour. The company received several applications from men who had contacted The Sun. Several men have found jobs through Goodwill of the Chesapeake's ex-offender program, and others are working through STRIVE Baltimore to get job interviews.
Does The Sun hire ex-offenders?
Most companies that do so resist making a fuss about it, and that includes The Sun. A criminal record is not a bar to employment here, according to Pat Klemans, director of human resources, who says the nature of the offense and when it occurred are taken into account. The Sun has relationships with Maryland New Directions for Women, Goodwill Industries and five other agencies for recruitment purposes. A former drug addict, Steve Dixon, wrote in an e-mail: "When I first got clean, I sold the Sunpaper on the corner of Broadway and Orleans for 18 months. It was very humbling, yet ever so helpful."
What agencies need funds to help people get out of the life?
This question has started to come up in the last few weeks. One reader offered bus fare to help ex-offenders get to job interviews. The Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Wine & Food donated $1,000 to Moveable Feast to support the culinary training program it offers to men and women looking for a new career path. (Former drug dealer Harry Calloway, among others, is in that program now.) I could get in a lot of trouble with a partial list of non-profits deserving donations. So, let me suggest a visit to the Web site of the city's ex-offender initiative, http://www.oedworks.co m/exoffender.htm. Look for the resource guide; it lists dozens of agencies involved in this effort.