BALTIMORE — At 8 a.m. Thursday, a team of volunteer garbage men wearing fluorescent orange shirts that read “Operation Baltimore Cleanup” walked down Monroe Street in West Baltimore, picking up trash.
They were about three blocks from where Freddie Gray was arrested in 2015 when they noticed two young men struggling to walk down the street.
The garbage men, who had just arrived from New York and Florida, had pledged to clean up Baltimore after the city’s garbage issues came under national scrutiny following controversial tweets by President Trump last month.
“I started searching [online for] #Baltimore,” said John Rourke, chief executive of All American Sanitation, who helped organize the trip. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.” He searched a Google Street View image of Baltimore and focused his efforts on where he could see the most trash.
Rourke, who served 16 years in the Army, called up other veterans and friends, he said. One donated clothes. Another, a garbage truck. They set up Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages under the name “The Traveling Trash Men.”
Within their first hour of work in Baltimore, one of the volunteers was administering naloxone to the two men, who appeared to be overdosing on opioids.
Clint Scherb, 32, noticed them shortly after he started picking up trash. He watched them, he said, and thought they appeared to be on drugs.
A former deputy for the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, Scherb saw one pass out on the ground and the other slump over on a stairwell.
Scherb checked their vitals. One man’s pulse was slow; and then nothing, he said.
An Easterwood neighborhood resident who had been watching came over with the naloxone. Scherb administered it as Baltimore police arrived, and the two men regained consciousness.
“If we had not come here and the locals hadn’t had Narcan,” Scherb said, referring to the brand name for naloxone, “they would have died.”
“We came here to do one thing and God blessed us with another,” added Joe Rivieccio, 38, a volunteer from Jupiter, Fla.
The men distanced themselves from Trump’s tweets but credited them for getting the group to West Baltimore.
“He was so over-the-top,” Rourke said of the president’s remarks. “You would want him to be more presidential. But it was so over-the-top that it got my attention. I wouldn’t have known about it otherwise. It got me here.”
As they continued to pick up piles of trash along Monroe Street on Thursday morning, Rourke expressed shock at the condition of some parts of the city.
“I didn’t know that a city in the United States could be this bad. I’ve seen cities in Iraq cleaner than here. Cities shouldn’t be this bad,” he said.
One block down the street, Baltimore resident Terry Johnson, 63, picked weeds along a sidewalk. He has been cleaning the area for local businesses for three years, he said.
Johnson said he appreciated the volunteers, but “it’s sad that they have to go outside and bring people here. They should employ more people in the city that need work.”
The men, who will be cleaning streets in Baltimore until Saturday, said they hope their efforts will be carried forward by locals after they leave.
“There are all types of craziness in this world, Rivieccio said. He added that he hopes public and private organizations will convene to help West Baltimore. “It starts with one person helping another and blossoms from that.
Some of the men volunteering Thursday had heard of Freddie Gray, the man who was arrested in the area and died of injuries suffered while in police custody.
Gray had been trying to turn his life around after several small-time drug arrests.
He had suffered from lead poisoning while growing up in a rowhouse not far from where the men stood. His family settled a lawsuit filed against a landlord, alleging that lead paint in the house resulted in “permanent injury to their nerves and nervous system and permanent brain damage,” according to court records.
Protests erupted after Gray’s death and violence in the city spiked.
West Baltimore residents living in the 21217 Zip code, where the men were working, have experienced violence that is unfathomable to most U.S. residents. More than 345 people have been shot and wounded, and an additional 179 people have been killed there since 2015, according to the Baltimore Sun’s online crime database.
“It’s a microcosm that started the uproar, but it’s the underlying issue that gets the pot boiling,” Rivieccio said upon hearing of the uprising. “The underlying issues being mental health, addiction and poverty. These are problems not just here, but nationwide.”