"You just trying to pay bills, forreal," says Blue, a squeegee kid in Baltimore. A look at the business of being a squeegee kid. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun video)
Downtown Partnership “ambassadors” in fluorescent green vests have been deployed to key Baltimore intersections at morning and evening rush hours to monitor interactions between “squeegee kids” and motorists, while also pointing the young people to job training services and other resources to help meet their needs.
Michael Evitts, a spokesman for the group, said guides will be deployed in pairs to Conway Street and President Street each day for the foreseeable future.
Although first characterized by the organization as security guards, Evitts said they are an extension of the organization’s hospitality and tourism ambassadors. They are not armed and have no arrest powers.
“We have trained them to be hospitality ambassadors, not security guards,” Evitts said. “The mindset matters.”
Evitts said no negative interactions between the youngsters and the guides have been reported to Downtown Partnership since the monitors were first deployed earlier this month.
The organization decided to spend about $3,000 a week on the guides after hearing an increase in concerns from people visiting and working downtown about the young window washers who work for tips. Some of the kids allegedly threatened drivers, drew obscene images on their vehicles, and hit their windows with their squeegees. Money for the guides comes from the Downtown Partnership’s budget, derived from a surcharge on commercial properties in the 106-block business district.
A 10-year-old was struck in late October near President and Pratt streets while trying to clean windshields. The child was taken to the hospital and the driver remained on the scene. Earlier that month, a squeegee kid allegedly smashed a car window at the intersection of Hamburg and Russell streets when the driver said he refused the service.
Police, however, have not provided data to show whether squeegee activity, arrests or crimes associated with the window washers have increased. The department says officers’ focus is on engaging with the young people and connecting them to opportunities, such as job training programs.
Mayor Catherine Pugh says she is raising money so she can spend $2 million a year to entice 100 young people to permanently leave the street corners in exchange for a stipend and joining an educational and job training program. The kids have an assortment of needs — some, for instance, have dropped out of school; others are homeless. Pugh said the new program will be built on other efforts by her administration, including “pop-up” car washes and a special youth employment program for 25 youngsters recruited on city corners.
“Real solutions are in our grasp, and I’m confident that we can put forth a sustainable program for the squeegee kids of our city,” Pugh wrote in an op-ed published in The Baltimore Sun last month. “Every city resident needs to know that we are intensely focused on the problems facing Baltimore, which have gone on far too long. The squeegee kids have been now a reality for over 30 years. Whether they continue to be a reality in the days ahead will depend on our ability to offer compelling and sustainable alternatives.”
Community activist Terrell Williams said the youths need more than “Band-Aid” solutions. He runs the “Turnaround Tuesday” program for Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, or BUILD, which is a program for the city’s long-time unemployed men and women that is part therapy and life-skills training and part guided problem-solving. He is raising money to start a similar program for the squeegee kids.
Williams predicted the guides won’t have any meaningful impact on the kids’ lives, and he worries that an interaction could go wrong.
“It’s like anything else, we always have these Band-Aid approaches to big problems,” Williams said. “Why not really invest the money to get to know these kids? They’re in difficult places. That is why they’re on the corner spraying water on people’s windows.”
The issue of panhandling in intersections is prominent across the country, said Steve Hillard, president of Streetplus, a company that provides safety and hospitality services to downtown improvement districts in 11 states. The practice is unsafe, he said, especially when children are involved. They’re at risk from distracted drivers and those with road rage.
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“Well-trained professional people, like the ambassadors, can be a deterrent,” Hillard said. “I love the idea to engage these individuals and get them into other things that are productive.”
In Baltimore, Evitts said the Downtown Partnership guides are available to help distressed motorists and offer customer service tips to the kids, in addition to monitoring the interactions between the young people and drivers. They are deployed for about eight hours a day on weekdays, typically along Conway and President streets. But they move throughout busy downtown areas depending on where the window washers may be located.
The guides are a short-term solution and one part of the organization’s approach toward addressing poverty in the city, the partnership says. The group employs outreach workers to engage with people living on the street and also is creating a mobile app to allow people to text donations for various causes.
No end date is scheduled for the guides, Evitts said. The guides are on contract from a security firm and received a weeklong training course from the Downtown Partnership.
“We will keep them on as long as there is a need,” he said, adding that the weather and the school calendar will be factors.