Earlier this month, on a chilly late Saturday morning, Justin Poindexter shows up to clean a wide, brown-grass lot beside a Dollar Tree store in the Lowe’s shopping center in Southeast Durham.

The tall, solidly built man wears baggy jeans, with a lime-green-and-orange vest over his black zipper coat and sweatshirt. A black toboggan perched atop his head, he wears sunglasses with mirror lenses that reflect the bright orange sun. A black neck gaiter covers his face. A patch reading “RUN DURM” emblazons one of the vest’s chest pockets.

In the spirit of “no one can do everything, but everyone can do something,” for the past three years, Poindexter has used a long-handled grabber and large trash bags to haul away trash and debris—wine and liquor bottles, beer cans and cigarette butts, heroin needles and baby diapers, fast food bags and used condoms—from some of Durham’s most violent communities. One of his cleaning stops is near the intersection of Guthrie and Holloway Streets in East Durham which accounted for nearly a third of the city’s record 49 homicide victims last year.

“The main message is to restore the love back to the community,” Poindexter says. “We count, and we can clean up on our own …. It goes back to mental health, and keeps [property value] appraisals up. There are studies that show a clean environment improves self-worth …. If an area is clean, it’s less likely to be a negative narrative about it.”

Poindexter—a 43-year-old native of Long Island who moved to Durham in 2002 for a job teaching third graders with the public schools—wants to send this message to the community, and to a city ravaged by deadly gun violence.

Owing largely to shootings in East Durham that took the lives of 17 people last year, including two 17-year-olds and two 15-year-olds, the predominantly working-class community is beset by a negative perception.

Last month, shortly after a mass shooting in East Durham killed two teens and wounded four others, newly elected mayor Elaine O’Neal issued a citywide challenge to halt what is essentially Black fratricide.

“Law enforcement and the government can’t tackle this issue alone,” a clearly distraught O’Neal said during a hastily called press conference at the downtown Durham Police Department headquarters. “We need every member of the community to join us in this fight to save lives.”

Newly elected city council member Leonardo Williams noted an uncomfortable truth about the city’s gun violence epidemic:

“The majority, or almost all of the people getting killed are Black, and the majority, if not all of the people doing the killing are Black,” he said during his first city council meeting. “So, as a Black man I’m saying we have a problem that we as a community need to address.”

“It’s all of us,” O’Neal said. “You are your brother’s keeper. And if you do nothing you are part of the problem. So we need help.”

Two years before O’Neal was even elected, Poindexter figured he could make a difference and alter the trajectory of deadly gunfire by simply picking up trash in several of the city’s toughest neighborhoods.

“The new mayor is amazing. That touched me,” he says. “There has to be people who want to stand up for what’s right. We have to care.”

Before starting on the dormant field, Poindexter cleaned the asphalt lot next to the Dollar Tree.

“Lots of heroin needles here,” he says while working. “People deserve to shop in a clean area. A lot of older people, mothers, shop here. I just feel like they are queens and don’t need to see trash in the parking lot.”

Everyone from older residents to drug dealers thanks Poindexter and encourages him to keep cleaning. City officials know about him, too.

Council member Williams says he first encountered Poindexter while campaigning for office.

“I never met him, but something I said while campaigning rang a bell with him and he started sending me pictures of him cleaning the streets,” Williams says. “So we have this anonymous relationship. I honor and support what he’s doing. There’s something in his heart that’s leading him to want to do something right.”

After picking up every single piece of trash littering the asphalt lot, Poindexter turns his attention to the field whose sides slope upward to Fayetteville Street and MLK Boulevard, using the grabber to snatch up discarded cardboard boxes and heavy plastic.

“I clean this whole thing,” he explains. “It could be my mother who comes here, my grandfather, my auntie.”

Poindexter’s transformation into a one-man cleaning crew echoes the words of the French Enlightenment writer Voltaire, who asserted that “we must cultivate our [own] garden” to ward off the “three great evils: weariness, vice, and want.”

For Poindexter, it’s about deescalating the violence, and teaching young people to give one another a pass instead of reaching for the seemingly ubiquitous firearms in their waistbands.

Poindexter’s quest to clean neighborhoods he cares about started three years ago. It was Saturday morning in his Southeast Durham neighborhood and he decided to take a walk. He walked outside and saw three empty vodka bottles on the side of the road. There was a dirty diaper to boot, and heroin needles.

“I thought, ‘Let me pick that up,’” he says.

Poindexter contacted the local chapter of NC Harm Reduction Coalition, which now supplies him with containers to properly store the discarded needles. He also asked for Narcan overdose kits.

Loftin Wilson, a programs manager with the Durham chapter of NC Harm Reduction, told the INDY that in addition to supplying Poindexter with overdose kits, Wilson regularly picks up needles he collects from neighborhoods throughout East and Southeast Durham. The biohazardous needles are incinerated, Wilson says.

“Justin is such a friendly and warm presence,” Wilson says. “People feel connected with him because he is very nonjudgmental.”

Wilson says Poindexter works in a “bunch of different communities.”

“He’s such a connector in the community,” Wilson adds. “And he’s always looking for ways to connect the community to groups. He’s so passionate about cleaning up neighborhoods.”

One of the agencies Poindexter connected with is Keep Durham Beautiful. The nonprofit works in partnership with the city to organize volunteers that help with litter prevention and community greening.

Tania Dautlick, executive director of Keep Durham Beautiful, says for a little over a year, the nonprofit has supplied Poindexter with trash bags, the ubiquitous grabber, and gloves.

“I remember him coming into the office and asking for supplies and sharing his vision for cleaning Durham,” Dautlick told the INDY last week.

Dautlick says the nonprofit’s hundreds of volunteers typically adopt one street. Not so with Poindexter.

“[Poindexter] adopted a number of streets,” she explains. “He’s all over the place.”

Poindexter says something clicked inside him after picking up trash in his own neighborhood. He realized that collecting trash could be an opportunity to connect in the community with an authentic grassroots approach.

Formerly, Poindexter had made it his mission to teach third-grade English after reviewing studies that found children who had not attained reading proficiency by the fourth grade were less likely to succeed academically, graduate from high school on time, or do well in life and the workforce.

“Studies have shown that a Black boy who fails the third grade reading test has a greater chance of being incarcerated,” he explains.

Poindexter no longer teaches, but he’s still an educator. He gives out free books to children who live in the neighborhoods where he cleans.

“It’s mostly at the places where I clean,” he says. “If I see a Black father at the park with his child, I’ll give them a book.”

Poindexter’s zeal for cleaning up neighborhoods may be a metaphor for a quiet effort to come clean with a tragic episode in his own life.

In 2017, following a 15-year teaching career in Durham, Poindexter resigned from the profession after he was charged with a felony hit-and-run accident that killed 72-year-old Phillip Shaw. The accident happened just after 11 p.m. in the 3700 block of Fayetteville Street, near Hillside High School, not far from where Poindexter now cleans the Dollar Tree lot and adjoining field.

It’s not an easy subject for Poindexter to talk about. He says the accident happened on a Tuesday night. It was dark, he was not under the influence, and was driving the speed limit when “when all of a sudden my front windshield was cracked and I heard a loud pow!’”

“I thought someone was shooting. I didn’t call the police. The next morning the police raided my house,” Poindexter recalls.

“How can I not feel compassion and empathy for what happened?” Poindexter says. “I was an elementary school teacher.”

“For me, my whole life was turned upside down for doing something I do everyday, driving down the street,” he adds. “Of course, you’re going to feel bad. But I’m not a victim. I want to change this narrative instead of being a victim.”

Shaw’s family was not immediately available for comment.

In 2019, Poindexter was convicted of felony hit and run causing serious injury or death and sentenced to three months in the Durham County jail. While in custody, Poindexter’s passion for cleaning was born.

“In jail, the biggest job is cleaning,” he explains.

Since 2019, Poindexter has supported himself by working at restaurants. But his passion is cleaning. And while using a grabber, gloves, and trash bags in his quest to make Durham a safer place, he dreams of funding that will enable him to someday start his own business.

“I’m gonna clean until somebody recognizes,” he says.

“It’s the American thing to do, to look out for one another, to help someone, just help, just help,” he adds. “I’m not an institution, but I wanna stop the shootings, and hire other people … I tell people, ‘If you can put down the [gun] and pick up the grabber, you can’t get a felony for this.’” 

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Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com.