It’s 6:15 a.m. and the sun has just risen in the hazy August sky when the dog owner heads out on her daily walk through Carroll Park.
A four-year resident of the Pigtown neighborhood in southwest Baltimore, she traces the same route every day, tracking her miles before she heads to work.
But far from being a peaceful morning stroll, her ritual in this city-run park requires her to be constantly vigilant.
“There’s always people nodding off, falling asleep on the bench, with needles under them,” she said.
“When my dog runs around, sometimes I have to snatch his leash back a little. When we’re in the grass, I constantly look at the ground as I step. It’s become second nature at this point because you see needles all over the place.”
She is among the local residents who risk accidental needlestick injuries in the park every day. That’s something Diante Edwards, president of Citizens of Pigtown, is trying to change.
He has partnered with SPARC Women’s Center to secure funding to install Sharps Disposal Kiosks in the park and elsewhere. The kiosks, Edwards argues, would result in a cleaner park and reduce harmful practices like needle reuse.
But despite agreeing to take responsibility for the kiosk’s installation and upkeep, Citizens of Pigtown and SPARC have yet to get the green light from Baltimore City Recreation and Parks (BCRP) despite months of interactions with the agency.
“Them stonewalling us is preventing us from instituting a program that has to do with the safety of our parks and community,” said Edwards. “This, to me, is unacceptable.”
According to BCRP spokesperson Kevin Nash, Rec and Parks is committed to “providing a safe and sustainable method for maintaining sharps kiosks at Carroll Park.”
He said the agency has contacted “several city agencies” to determine the best way to manage such a program, but did not provide any timeline for the kiosk’s installation in the park.
The saga started over a year ago after the South Baltimore Gateway Partnership awarded Citizens of Pigtown and SPARC a $16,100 grant to install four kiosks throughout the community.
One kiosk, located on West Ostend Street, was installed in May. (“A few dozen needles” were left in it in its first week of operation, Edwards says.) Advocates plan to install another on Washington Boulevard and a third in the Barre Circle neighborhood.
But the final kiosk, set for Carroll Park, requires BCRP approval.
Edwards and other advocates began seeking that approval last October, meeting with Deputy Director Edward Wheeling and others to finalize a plan for the kiosk’s installation. Despite initial opposition, Edwards says they were able to address the agency’s concerns.
“There’s no responsibility for BCRP. There’s nothing they need to do except approve putting it in the park,” Edwards said.
Citizens of Pigtown and SPARC were prepared to take full responsibility for the kiosk’s upkeep. SPARC would empty and replace the kiosk’s bins when they filled up, and had secured a vendor to ship the used needles. The groups offered to sign a memorandum of understanding to uphold their end of the bargain.
“We’ve received no updates except, ‘we’re working on it,’ then total radio silence” – Diante Edwards, president of Citizens of Pigtown.
Edwards emphasized that the kiosks, made of steel and roughly the size of a UPS post box, would be bolted to the ground and secured with magnetic locks. The needle opening would only be big enough for sharps.
In April, Edwards and others arranged a site visit in Carroll Park with Rec and Parks officials to decide on a location for the kiosk.
“They met with us and said the director basically mandated that we will have our kiosk in the park,” Edwards recalled.
“Since then, we’ve received no updates except, ‘we’re working on it,’ then total radio silence since mid-June. I’ve continued to follow up, I’ve continued to ask for an updates, but they refuse to respond.”
Endorsed by Health Department
For advocates of the kiosk, BCRP’s lack of response is both frustrating and baffling.
“Pigtown is a community where we don’t ask for or receive much government assistance,” said Edwards. “When we ask for basic things where we simply need approval, it’s disappointing that they can’t even do that for us.”
Others wonder if the kiosk would be effective. The Pigtown woman who walks her dog in Carroll Park says she has seen several public improvements there come undone, citing as an example the installation of new trash cans last year that have since been damaged.
“Will they use it?” she asked. “Do you really think they’re gonna be like, ‘Hey, before I pass out, let me go and put this in the kiosk?’ I don’t think so.”
Similar kiosks have operated in other states for years, including in New York, part of a widely-accepted approach to public health and harm reduction.
Edwards expressed confidence that the program will work. Similar kiosks have operated in other states for years, including in New York, part of a widely-accepted approach to public health and harm reduction.
In Baltimore, the city health department currently has a syringe collection kiosk in the McElderry Park neighborhood and is in the “procurement phase” of adding 20 additional kiosks.
“BCHD welcomes the Citizens of Pigtown’s efforts to establish a kiosk in Carroll Park and all community advocacy that raises awareness on the importance of these public health solutions,” an agency spokesperson told The Brew yesterday.
Edwards hopes the efforts in Pigtown can be a blueprint for the rest of the city to follow.
“We are basically the first neighborhood to do something like this on this scale, and we can provide proof of concept that this is something that works,” he said.
Facing a Deadline
But they’ll still need BCRP’s go-ahead to provide that proof of concept.
Their grant covers 18 months of funding and, due to the lack of BCRP approval, Citizens of Pigtown have had to delay their service contract with SPARC.
If the project stalls out, the organization may be forced to forfeit the funding and potentially return money they’ve already spent: about half of the $16,100 requested. Edwards does not believe the organization could repay that.
Edwards says he is prepared to take action now that it looks like BCRP is continuing to shut them out, despite promises by the administration of Mayor Brandon Scott to get things moving.
“Please accept my apologies [for] the length of time it has taken to provide your community with a final decision on this issue,” City Administrator Faith Leach wrote him last Thursday. “We will follow up in short order.”
But still with no response today, Edwards is going ahead, interpreting the lack of response as “consent to install the kiosk in the park.”
“Is that the right way to move forward? Probably not. But at this point, I think the community’s need is great enough that it’s morally the right thing to do.”
“Regarding our project aimed at removing dangerous needle litter from Carroll Park, and considering our many attempts to operate in partnership with the agency since October 2022, we will be moving forward,” he wrote to mayor’s office and Rec & Parks officials yesterday.
“We are highly disappointed that BCRP seems incapable of basic communication with the community or of handling what should have been a simple approval process,” he wrote, adding in closing:
“Thank you, City Administrator Leach, for your attempts to assist us in our endeavor! Best of luck in your continued tenure at City Hall.”