Baltimore's Downtown Partnership to place unarmed guards at intersections to monitor 'squeegee kids'

Acting out of concern for motorists traveling through Baltimore, the Downtown Partnership will begin placing unarmed security guards at busy intersections as early as next week to calm interactions between “squeegee kids” and drivers.

Kirby Fowler, the organization’s president, said workers and residents in the city’s business and cultural district are reporting an increase in bad experiences with the squeegee kids, typically boys and teens who for generations have looked to wash windshields at Baltimore intersections for tips.

He said the washers sometimes threaten drivers, draw obscene images on their windshields or hit vehicles with their squeegees, cracking glass and causing other damage. He heard this week of one squirting washer fluid in a driver’s mouth.

The partnership will spend roughly $3,000 a week on guards along President and Conway streets during the morning and evening rush hours, Fowler said. The guards will not have arrest powers but will monitor the young people and offer to connect them with services to meet their needs. The guards also will be there to provide assistance to motorists who ask for help.

The short-term solution, Fowler said, attempts to recognize both the complex factors that drive the window washers to the intersections and the problems they sometimes create for motorists. The organization also is preparing to launch a mobile “text-to-give” app in the coming months that will allow drivers to make donations for homeless services and various poverty interventions.

“There are certain people who view the squeegee activity as an extension of poverty and distress in the city,” Fowler said. “Others see it as a nuisance and don’t want to be bothered. And to some extent, both could be correct.”

Fowler said the partnership does not have data to show whether there are more squeegee kids downtown, but his organization is hearing more complaints than ever.

Earlier this month, a squeegee kid allegedly smashed a driver’s rear window, according to a post the driver made in a Federal Hill Facebook group. The man, who did not want to be identified, said he refused a window washer at the intersection of Hamburg and Russell streets when the young man broke the glass. A police spokesman said no arrests have been made in the case.

The police did not provide data to show whether squeegee activity, arrests or crimes associated with the window washers have increased.

Capt. Jeffrey Featherstone of the Central District said the department’s primary focus is on engagement efforts. He said officers are deployed on foot to key intersections where they try to create relationships with the young people and connect them to work in the city’s youth jobs programs or talk to them about other opportunities. Arresting the youth for blocking traffic or related offenses, or confiscating their squeegees and spray bottles, is a last resort, he said.

“These are children and our focus is taking a holistic approach to improving lives and improving safety,” Featherstone said. “At the end of the day we don’t want these young men on the street conducting this activity. Our goal is to redirect them into training, get them whatever they need, to not be in the street.”

Mayor Catherine Pugh said she is working to create a jobs program specifically for the squeegee kids. Over the next several months, she hopes to raise $1.7 million from private sector donations to give about 100 squeegee kids part-time jobs. The mayor said she believes that matches the number of kids regularly washing windows, based on surveys by her administration. Not all of the window washers are kids, Pugh said. Some are older teens or grown men with a variety of needs. Some have dropped out of high school or are homeless.

Her message to them all is: “It’s against the law to impede traffic whether you’re a squeegee window-washer, a beggar, selling newspapers,” Pugh said. “You have to be on the sidewalk. You can’t retaliate. No means no.”

Pugh denies the notion that there are now more people soliciting drivers for money than in the past.

She said the jobs program will not be an expansion of the Squeegee Corps she launched last year to get kids out of the intersections and working in “pop-up” car washes. She is using lessons she learned from that endeavor to create a better solution that includes reaching out to the young people and asking what they need in place of washing windows for tips.

“Are there ways to invest in young people? Are they interested in a lawn care business or helping to clean up vacant lots?” Pugh said. “You need to have something for them to do one day and the next day.

“The children are worth finding real solutions to the problems.”

A 15-year-old high school sophomore from Pigtown said in the two years he has worked as a squeegee boy, he has had his feet run over, people display guns to him and some threaten to fight him. He said he washes windows to bring in money for his family, including his mother and three younger sisters. He buys clothing for the girls and can afford to buy some of the household items his mom asks for help with, such as food and toilet paper.

Plus, the boy said, working as a squeegee kid helps keep some youth out of trouble, especially those who are too young to be hired in a traditional job.

“You’ve got them young kids who are always bad around your neighborhood, if you put them out here, they ain’t got nothing to be bad about,” the boy said at the intersection of Washington and Martin Luther King Jr. boulevards. “We’re not harming y’all. We’re trying to make a living, just like y’all trying to make a living.”

Valerie Costello, a 33-year-old office coordinator, said she encounters squeegee kids on her drive through the city each day from her Dundalk home to her job in Mount Washington.

“If the kids were more respectful, it wouldn’t be a big deal,” said Costello, who has seen the kids kick cars and “get mouthy when you tell them no.”

And they’re not only looking for tips, Costello said. Many look inside her car and ask for items they see inside. She worries that they could be working in teams to distract her and reach inside to take her purse or another valuable item.

“I don’t mind the hustle of trying to get a few extra dollars,” Costello said, but if you tell them no, they should accept that.

Jackie Oldham, 64, recently wrote a poem about squeegee kids. The Northeast Baltimore woman is a writer known as “Baltimore Black Woman” who works to promote dialogues on race and city life that promote a deeper understanding among people.

She said she has “very mixed feelings” about the young window washers. She too wants them to respect drivers when they decline their services.

Oldham hopes city leaders can help the young men build on their entrepreneurial spirit and desire to earn money legally. Perhaps if the kids held signs telling drivers what they were trying to earn money for, there would be less tension at the intersections, she said.

“When you look at what they go through in their quest to make money, the frustrations could fall away,” Oldham said. “It might curtail some of the anger.”

ywenger@baltsun.com

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