Baltimore has long-held a reputation as a hotbed of violence and unrest. From its depiction in HBO’s critically-acclaimed drama, The Wire; to the national spotlight that shone bright upon it during the protests that erupted after a man mysteriously died in police custody, Baltimore isn’t typically thought of as a “paradise”. If you’re only impressions were from these narrow representations, no one would fault you if you assumed the city was barely functioning.
Don’t tell that to Leana Wen, though. The Baltimore City health commissioner envisions a new paradigm for the city. The dense urban area shouldn’t be an example of what a city shouldn’t be like— rather, it should be an example of what a city can become. As commissioner, she has led the charge to change the way Baltimoreans— and the country at large— talks about addiction. Rather than approaching treatment as a way to fix a series of poor life decisions, she argued before Congress and President Obama, public health officials need to treat it like a disease. She envisions Baltimore’s recovery from the cycle of poverty, violence, and addiction to be something that the entire country can look to for inspiration.
But it’s not just drug addiction that she wants to engage. Mental health is at the top of her list, and the death of Freddie Gray and the spate of violent engagement with police have propelled it into that position. The protests, she notes, were a time where residents felt they could finally speak their minds and reveal the mental toll of living in poverty.
Hopes are high and optimism great in Wen’s Baltimore, but she is not burdened by unrealistic expectations. Eliminating these issues isn’t possible— there will always be the problem of drug addiction or poverty. Instead, it’s about how you can reduce those problems and mitigate the damage it has on people’s’ lives. As an example, the city passed a law that no longer will longer individuals who help those who have overdosed on drugs. And if you are caught with drugs? New programs don’t toss you in jail— they lead you to treatment. Approaches like these can allow the challenges of any city to be met effectively, and with hope for the future.