At OSI Solutions Summit, activists and citizens offer agenda for Pugh

A full day of speeches, poetry, and voting via text message brought several hundred people together at the War Memorial building to decide 16 issues to urge Mayor Catherine Pugh to tackle first. 

The Solutions Summit, which follows similar summits in New York in 2013 and Wahington D.C. in 2014, was hosted by the Open Society Institute with sponsorship from PNC Bank and a brace of other corporate players. It was the culmination of over a year of meetings to hash out policy recommendations on the issues of employment, drug abuse and recovery, and criminal and juvenile justice. 

Diana Morris, OSI-Baltimore's director, said the summit should "make Baltimore a shining example of democracy in action." 

Prompted in part by the protests surrounding the death of Freddie Gray in 2015, the OSI's smaller, earlier meetings coalesced around a desire to find "real solutons in a rigorous, thoughtful process," Morris said. 

Pugh appeared at the kickoff session before leaving on other business. She later handed President-elect Donald Trump a letter outlining what the city wants and needs from the federal government. 

The new mayor spoke in sweeping ideals and specific examples, mentioning a park near the Gilmor Homes, where Freddie Gray lived, that looks unkempt and dirty. The maintenance there is supposedly linked to a $350,000 contract with a penal institution, Pugh said: "That could be 35 jobs in the community." 

She called on "angel funds, investor funds" to invest in Baltimore entrepreneurs to grow their businesses and said the city needs "someone who will pull the trigger on things that are not working. Someone who will say, just because we've always done it this way, doesn't mean we have to do it that way." 

She called for residents and business leaders to meet her half way: pull up your pants, don't litter or set trash out three days before scheduled pickup. Don't squander resources without a plan for the future. "People want to feed the homeless, and we want the homeless to be fed," she said. "But that's not the only thing they need." 

Homelessness and housing were not on the summit's agenda. 

Sherrilyn Ifill's keynote speech seemed to make the most impact, as later speakers referred to it several times. Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, accentuated the positive. In 20 years' residence on the west side, she said, community involvement and public life left her with "almost entirely positive" memories. "I am over the constant lamentation of problems in Baltimore," she said.  

But segregation, dating to the 1930s (when it was federal mortgage policy) and before, infuses every problem in this city. Ifill asked the crowd to imagine what Freddie Gray's life would be like had he survived. Even if Gray somehow got a job at Hopkins, how could he get there on the city's broken public transportation system, she asked. 

She urged the assembly to work hard to make sure the Baltimore Police Department signs a binding consent decree with the Justice Department before Trump's inauguration. "That decree has to be with a federal judge before January 19," she said. 

A panel discussion on addiction, treatment, and recovery followed, the assembled delegates asked to winnow a list of 11 policy proposals to just five. Near the back of the room, skepticism. 

There isn't anything about youth dealing with addiction, said Alexandria Adams, who leads Elev8 Baltimore, a community schools and youth initiative in East Baltimore. 

She was talking to Roxy Umphery, a grant writer, about capacity. Most of Adams' 50 or so people weren't ready to work with youth when they came, she said, and by the time they get the skill, they're ready to move up in the organization for better pay and benefits. This pattern is not unique; the whole structure of our working society is like this, she said: We don't pay for that crucial skillset, so we don't have it deployed enough to do that much good. "The programs aren't what people respond to," Adams said. "It's the people." 

"I don't want to be cynical," Umphery said, "but the city can't do a lot of these things on its own." She added that the summit is "a good start."

Umphery, a 2014 OSI fellow, also had misgivings about the summit's voting system, which involves texting with one's phone. She thought the batteries wouldn't make it. "They should have had power outlets," she said. Then: "My provider alerted me that there may be charges." 

Tara, one of the volunteers, happened by and assured Umphery that she won't be charged. "Not unless you've got a minute-by-minute plan," she said. 

City Paper heard of no issues with phone batteries during the seven-hour event.

The text-based votes were flashed on screens around the room in real time. Some of the policy proposals are very detailed, others not. The crowd favored items 1, 2, 4, 5, 7 and 11, with those last two in a dead heat. The first item is one of the detailed ones: The OSI summit will ask Pugh to conduct a "landscape scan" of all drug treatment providers in Baltimore, including eligibility requirements, insurance types accepted, levels of care (drug treatment comes in several "levels," from outpatient to intensive inpatient, depending on the severity of the addiction and other factors), services available and numbers of people served. The summit wants this scan to examine gaps in service by levels of care and geography, and be widely published in print and online, and updated continuously to reflect what treatment slots are available. 

Item 2 calls for the creation of "a funding model that uses discretionary funds to support case management and peer recovery specialist services in order to provide wraparound" care and coordination of various treatment and recovery services.

Item 4 is a "public awareness campaign aimed at normalizing substance use disorders" so as to reduce the stigma associated with them. 

Item 5: "Advocate for fair, non-discriminatory zoning standards that permit outpatient and residential programs to locate in communities under the same standards as other medical services." This was actually done half a decade ago, but advocates say that the laws and regulations are not followed. 

Item 7 calls for a training program to educate physicians about substance use disorders and their treatment options. The behavioral health community has long lamented the lack of doctors that will prescribe Bupenorphine, the recently-developed drug to treat opiate addiction. 

Item 11 calls for increased access to sustainable funding, and technical assistance to improve the quality of service of addiction recovery providers, "(including data collection and outcome tracking)." This is interesting, as the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene endeavored to develop better tracking of individual patient outcomes back in 2010, even as a new state insurance program was making that task more difficult

There are a lot of items like this: good ideas that supposedly have already been implemented, or which have not yet been implemented despite some effort. How the incoming mayoral administration will be able to move these agenda items forward is an open question. 

Umphery and Adams are talking about grant-writing now. Alex is going to contract Umphery for services, maybe. This is how the system works. 

The second group of policy prescriptions center on "Criminal and Juvenile Justice." Much of the discussion centered on the stigma associated with having a criminal record. 

"I made some bad decisions and ended up being charged with multiple violent felonies," Nicole Hanson, board president of the non-profit Out for Justice, which advocates on behalf of former inmates, said. Hanson had been a nurse's aide, and was in nursing school, when she made these decisions, she said. She ended up in prison for a year. "My husband had to take two jobs," Hanson said. "I had to enlist family and friends to help care for my children." 

And when she got out she could no longer work in her field. She said police harassed her and assaulted her, saying "we have our eyes on you." 

"Everything in my life was taken from me," Hanson said. She decried the easy public availability of court records, saying it leads to discrimination. 

At the table in the back, Umphery was again skeptical: "I think the issue still is, what is the power of the city to make these changes?" 

The woman sitting next to her, a former police officer who now runs a youth-oriented non-profit, said that the first order of business must be bringing the Baltimore Police Department under direct city control. 

"As long as it remains an instrumentality of the state," she said, "none of this is going to happen." 

The voting flashed onscreen with items 1, 3, 4, 7, 8 and 10 leading—8 and 1 neck and neck. 

Number 1 is a simple call for "increased transparency of the Baltimore City Police Department." It's an oft-promised, seldom-realized dream. 

Number 3 directs the mayor to work with the city's legislative delegation in an effort to bring the police department under city control. The fourth item asks for a "Baltimore City executive commission to review pretrial agencies and practices" and release an advisory opinion. 

Number 7: "Remove legal and systemic barriers to employment for returning citizens and other individuals with criminal records." 

Item 8 calls for school discipline reform, improved conduct by school police, amending the Baltimore City student handbook and reallocating funds from punitive school discipline to restorative justice. 

Number 10 calls for increased access to social workers for students and their families. 

The group was dwindling in the afternoon as it voted on the suggestions for job creation. A panel spoke of various issues ranging from wage theft from day laborers to creating viable career ladders for ex-offenders to whether the city is hospitable to the "innovation economy." The votes went to agenda items 3-7, calling for the mayor to use local government hiring and contracting to favor local and minority workers and companies; develop worker-owned cooperatives and other alternative business models, expand GED and ESL services to address "Baltimore's severe basic skills gap"; connect youth, young adults, and former prison inmates to apprenticeships and internships; and provide case management, coaching, and supportive services to job-seekers, including criminal records expungement, child support arrearages, immigration status, transportation, housing, child care assistance, mental health and substance-abuse assistance, and "other barriers." 

The final vote was a yes-or-no concerning the creation of an "Office of Racial Equity" in the mayor's office. 

"It really is the glue that holds all of the other three together," Diane Bell McCoy, President and CEO of the Associated Black Charities, told the remaining delegates. If created, the office would review all city policies and ordinances through "a racial equity lens," she said. "Asking these questions is intended to disrupt. Disrupt the unintended consequences that lead to structural racism." 

The measure passed overwhelmingly. 

The plan will be presented to Mayor Pugh for a response. The OSI plans to report on the plan and its progress in the coming months. It posted the "Solutions Summit Action Plan here.

[Correction: An earlier version of this blog erroneously credited the Annie E. Casey Foundation with assisting the Summit, and that the previous Summits were both held in New York City, rather than New York and D.C. City paper regrets the errors.] 

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