Looking for what really works on the street

Q and A

Q&A.// Debra Furr-Holden


Debra Furr-Holden wasn't born in Baltimore - she's a native of Prince George's County - but her roots reach much deeper in this city than many who have been here for generations.

Personally, she lives in the northeast Baltimore neighborhood of Glenham-Belford, sending her three young children to the local public school. Professionally, she spends most of her time either out on the streets of Baltimore or analyzing data from her team of observers, trying to catalog the ills and assets of the city, to help direct government and community leaders in appropriate directions.

Furr-Holden, 32, first came to Baltimore to attend the Johns Hopkins University. She graduated a decade ago and continued on for her doctorate in Hopkins' School of Public Health. She has worked at Morgan State University, helping to get its new public health program off the ground.

And now, working under the aegis of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Calverton, she is directing a massive street-level accounting of the state of the city.

The project, which carries the academic title of "Environmental Strategies for Violence and Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention," recently got Furr-Holden to the White House, where she was presented one of the 56 Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers.

That means her study, originally funded in 2005 for three years by the National Institute of Health's National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, will now stretch to almost eight years, funded at $500,000 per year.

"We have been on about 1,000 blocks throughout the city," Furr-Holden says of her 16 staffers, who pay weekday visits in the afternoon and weekend visits between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. "Our goal is to assess them all. And there are 9,000 census blocks in Baltimore."

What sort of things are you looking for in the neighborhoods?

We are looking for everything from direct indicators of drug and alcohol abuse to signs of disregard for the community, like broken windows and abandoned houses. We are measuring the presence of alcohol outlets, landscaping, everything. We are looking for signs of order and disorder.

Another part of the study I am doing is in conjunction with a colleague, Nick Ialongo at Hopkins, who has a rich data bank on kids who were entering the first grade back in 1993. These kids self-reported their exposure to things in their community. So we can see how that relates to our assessments. We have found a very high correlation.

So, with drug abuse, what are the direct indicators you might find?

Things like burned bottle caps. One of the biggest things we find is what we've termed blunt guts. Marijuana smoking is rampant in the city and people take these blunt cigars and slice them open and shovel the guts out so they can replace the tobacco with marijuana. You find a pile of blunt guts in the middle of the street. It is evidence that people have no regard for the community, they are just doing it as they are walking down the street. You can follow the path from the corner store to their house like a pile of bread crumbs.

And for violence?

We find things like shells in the street and memorials to those murders. They are all over the place, Rest in Peace, the teddy bear memorials. We look for blood in the street. And we actually observe physical fighting and altercations. Think about it: If you can go out on some random day and observe people actually fighting in the street, that is an indication that this is something prevalent in that community.

We also look at a broad range of topics, such as sexual risk-taking, the risk of HIV exposure. We look for condoms. You would be surprised how many used condoms you find in the streets or on the front steps of abandoned houses that people have gained access to. We have found a lot of female condoms, which was a surprise to us.

We are in the assessment phase. We are moving into the intervention phase. Our goal is to use this data to make decisions about where to target things that can be done in our communities.

You must want these targets to be reasonable things that can be achieved.

Yes. For example, we look to see if there is public transportation proximate to a neighborhood and where it goes. Because one of the things that we know is that kids' being exposed to people in work uniforms has a positive impact on their impressions of work and community. So something little like that, people coming to and going from a bus stop on their way to and from jobs downtown, can make real difference.

It's a natural monitoring system for the community as well. You are less likely to get a congregation of drug dealers on the corner if there are people coming and going in the conduct of their business, or to and from work. These are the types of things that are feasible, environmental approaches to prevention.

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