When Revival Hotel in Mount Vernon began to take on squeegee workers through a city employment program, the staff decided to invite the apprentices to play basketball on Sundays.
The games had started recently as “Over the Hill Hoops,” an excuse for members of the staff in their 40s and older to play at a court near the home of Jason Bass, director of culture and impact at the hotel.
With the new workers added to the mix, Bass said apprentice Davion Hodges, 22, took over the court about three weeks ago, showing off his skills and personality.
“He said he was going to go easy on us,” Bass said, chuckling. “I think that he was one of the top scoring people on his team.”
The management initially saw the games as a way to welcome the new staff. But when the young players started talking Mondays with their colleagues about the previous day’s game, the senior staff realized that they’d created a way for the new workers to develop the skill of connecting with co-workers.
It’s that kind of add-on to employment, those steps beyond simply offering squeegee workers a regular paycheck, that some of those who’ve been trying to help them say is necessary for any aid to have a lasting effect.
Squeegeeing. a perennial issue in Baltimore in recent years, frequently involves young, Black men and boys cleaning windshields at busy intersections for cash. Much controversy surrounds the practice, with people seeing squeegee workers through a plethora of lenses: some view them as panhandlers who tarnish the city’s image, while others praise their entrepreneurial skills.
Interactions between drivers and squeegee workers have led to violence and confrontations, such as when a woman pulled a gun on a squeegee worker in 2019. With the arrest last month of a 15-year-old boy charged with killing a man who wielded a bat at squeegee workers, suggestions for how to deal with squeegeeing have run the gamut, too, from telling them to get jobs to issuing citations for violating laws regulating pedestrians in traffic. Meanwhile, some workers themselves see squeegeeing as a productive way to stand on their own two feet and earn money quickly and consistently.
Deputy Mayor Faith Leach, who oversees programs aimed at helping squeegee workers, said getting kids from squeegee work to gainful employment often requires providing other services first, including housing, transportation, counseling and life skills classes.
”Everybody’s been talking a lot about jobs,” she said. “While jobs are important, that’s not a silver bullet that’s gonna end squeegeeing across the city.”
Many squeegee workers face multiple hurdles to employment in the formal economy. Some begin squeegeeing below the legal age for employment or lack critical identification documents, such as Social Security cards, to complete hiring processes. Workers have also expressed a need for immediate cash payment to provide for themselves or loved ones, saying waiting for a paycheck just doesn’t cut it.
“You could say it’s like the first step into entrepreneurship,” said Lance White, 20, who used to squeegee. “It’s not easy to go out and find a job.”
Hustling to survive means finding “any way to come up with any type of money,” he said. And everything costs money — including getting proper identification, appropriate work clothes, reliable transportation and other basic needs.
During a July 27 hearing before a City Council committee, officials expressed widespread agreement that addressing the root causes of panhandling is a monumental task with no easy solution — one that first requires examining “how we contribute to broken systems and failed policies that have led our children, our young people, to stand on corners and hustle,” Leach said.
Some Baltimore businesses that have stepped up to help the workers have grappled with those challenges, and learned that simply offering jobs is not enough to transform workers’ lives.
Hodges, who squeegeed as a teen to help support himself after his mother died, works alongside White at the Revival Hotel. Both young men spoke at the hearing. Hodges said his experience as a bell attendant at Revival shows how local businesses can serve the community.
”They felt like family from day one,” said White, who started working in housekeeping in mid-July. “We want to be looked at as more than just a number, just one of the squeegee kids.”
Donte Johnson, general manager for the 107-room, 14-story hotel in Central Baltimore, said he grew up labeled as an at-risk youth, similar to the squeegee workers. There weren’t many programs that served his basic needs. He brings that perspective when he sees squeegee workers at intersections. He doesn’t mind holding up traffic for a few minutes, as long as he can connect with whoever he’s talking to.
Bass, who is responsible for work culture, said he wants everyone to feel authentic and welcome. New hires are provided with Revival Hotel apparel, though no uniform is required, and introduced to various departments. That way, apprentices can feel safe asking questions.
Leach said she believes the most successful employment programs for underserved youth will take a similar approach.
”Revival has really taken it upon themselves to treat them like family,” she said, noting that the hotel has hired 10 former squeegee workers this year.
She said employers also have to recognize where this population comes from. The key is “having employer partners who understand the challenges that our young people present with — and encourage and reprimand them as needed,” she said.
Bass noted that employers cannot take on squeegee workers with a “filter” that another employer might use to focus only on a worker’s time on the job. Sometimes, they have to understand there are circumstances in employees’ personal lives that may lead to travel issues, later arrival times for shifts or not being able to come in. Bass said the Revival staff doesn’t hold obstacles that create those situations against employees.
Mary Schroth, a real estate agent in Frederick County who has clients in Baltimore, decided less than a year ago that she wanted to use her business to help. Her team made a calendar of activities and services to support youth who squeegee. Each time they sell a home, $400 is set aside to help Baltimore youth in some form, she said.
“Each person’s situation is so unique, I think we really need understanding,” Schroth said. “We’re talking about the effects of poverty and what comes with that.”
Schroth, who co-owns the business, would like to create an internship program for squeegee workers, noting that dealing with the frequent rejections they received at intersections is a valuable skill in her line of work.
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“You’ve got to be pretty tough to get out there and deal with it all day long. To me, those kids show grit. They have traits that could be very viable to the business community,” Schroth said. “They’re bright and have just been failed by so many adults.”
Desmond Rogers, 21, works with Schroth and continues to squeegee when he can. The money he makes helps go toward their shared mission of helping squeegee workers overall. He’s also raised money through GoFundMe to get bikes for other squeegee workers.
“I want every child in Baltimore, the squeegee boys, to [have] work,” Rogers said.
Hodges said he plans to stick with Revival Hotel and finish up his trade school training in welding.
He said working at Revival is like no job he’s had before. Supervisors aren’t too strict, check in on how he’s doing and all the while he can be himself. In the past, workplaces would assign him to work on machines, away from people. At Revival, he enjoys the opportunity to put a smile on someone’s face.
“They help you come out of your comfort zone more than keep you in it,” Hodges said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Lillian Reed contributed to this article.