Rick Leandry knows that some drivers passing through downtown Baltimore have never seen a poor, black child before — so when one comes knocking on the car window, it can be shocking.
The Baltimore City employee has worked for several years recruiting more than 50 “squeegee kids” into city-run job readiness programs. It’s true, he says, that some of the youths who flock to Baltimore’s busiest intersections to clean windshields for cash are simply in pursuit of quick spending money after school. And others do it mostly to fit in with their peers.
But Leandry says many of the young workers, often black, school-age boys, are raising money for basic human needs — for themselves or their families.
“The kids who squeegee are not waking up like ‘I want to squeegee,’ " Leandry said. “They’re waking up and saying ‘I’m hungry.’ "
Baltimore leaders have struggled for decades to draw the youths away from dangerous downtown intersections, where clashes with motorists have spurred calls to police, been captured in viral videos and kindled intense debate among adults. The latest plan was introduced Monday by Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young.
The plan emerged as frustrated Baltimore business leaders had been pressing the mayor to figure out a strategy, and there’s a sense of urgency to address the problem. Officials believe there are more kids on the streets now, and they’re there more often.
“It’s getting worse,” says mayoral aide Tisha Edwards. And that, she says, “is an acknowledgement that we’re wrong on this and have been wrong."
As the city and its business and nonprofit community prepare to try again for a solution, some have concluded that developing meaningful public policy and programs for “squeegee kids” is as complex as solving poverty itself.
Years of squeegee policy
Past efforts to address the squeegee issue have ranged from stepping up law enforcement to swapping the work for a safer alternative.
In 1985, a monthslong debate about “squeegee kids” divided City Council members across racial lines when the police department requested authority to arrest anyone washing windows in traffic. The idea was denounced by some as racist and ended with a compromise — the creation of supervised curbside “squeegee stations” and job training for the youths.
Fewer than 20 kids enrolled in the programs. Some said they could make $7 at the squeegee stations, while on the street they could make $20 or $30 on a good day.
Former Mayor Catherine Pugh’s Squeegee Corps Program, created in 2017 and dissolved with her resignation in May, echoed that approach through the creation of car washes, designed to teach squeegee workers business and life skills in a supervised setting.
The program’s design soon revealed a few key blind spots.
Youths again reported they were not making as much money at the car washes as they could on the streets. Some said they couldn’t afford to take time off from squeegee work to participate in job readiness programs.
Of the 57 youths Leandry recruited in 2018, about 40 lacked basic government paperwork like Social Security cards or birth certificates required to hold a job. And those who were eventually able to secure jobs sometimes lacked some social skills required to keep them, he said.
“They would call and say, ‘Mr. Rick, this guy is trying to tell me what to do.’ They didn’t understand he was their manager,” he said.
When Young was sworn in as mayor after Pugh resigned, he created the Office of Children & Family Success, appointing Edwards, former interim city schools CEO, to head the office and revamp the city’s approach to squeegee workers.
She decided the city would need to make sure the workers get the financial support they need to stay in school or, for older youths, to undergo job training.
“We have to ground ourselves in how [we got] here and why is this happening,” Edwards said.
A holistic plan
Baltimore has an estimated 100 squeegee workers on the streets, but Edwards believes there are likely many more children poised to resort to windshield cleaning.
The holistic “Squeegee Alternative Plan” she developed for the mayor is designed to attack the poverty behind Baltimore squeegee culture, not the workers themselves.
The announcement came a few weeks after some of Baltimore’s most powerful business leaders sent an email to Young, City Council President Brandon Scott and Police Commissioner Michael Harrison complaining about the squeegee workers.
“All of our businesses have been supportive of youth initiatives and workforce development programs, so we obviously appreciate that there must be a balanced strategy for tackling law enforcement needs, poverty, unemployment, and job creation,” the email said. “However, we wanted to convey to you the adverse effects of the squeegee presence on our employees, clients, and tenants.”
Some people have complained on social media that squeegee workers become aggressive toward drivers who decline their services. Baltimore Police began tracking squeegee-related calls in June and have since logged more than 1,280 complaints.
Edwards says officials at City Hall have been looking through the lens of poverty at two age groups: school-age children who for various reasons need money and young adults who opt to squeegee over a traditional career path.
City officials are looking for $1 million annually to fund the proposal, which Edwards says would designate a credible mentor like Leandry for each child. The plan is designed to help young people overcome barriers to employment, such as a lack of government identification. Then it would connect youths with nonprofits offering opportunities to earn money quickly while they finish school or transition into longer-term employment.
Edwards says reaching older squeegee workers is likely to be the most challenging.
“I can compel an underage kid to go to school. I can’t compel an overage 19-year-old to go to work,” Edwards said.
Meanwhile, the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore has developed its own strategy. Last year, the nonprofit hired several “monitors” to be on the streets with squeegee workers and assist with any negative interactions with motorists.
Anecdotally, partnership president Kirby Fowler said, the monitors appeared to reduce tensions between drivers and young people.
“Many [squeegee workers] indicated they would rather be doing something else,” Fowler said. “It was our impression they were using the money to support families. But the immediacy of receiving money was the most appealing factor [in squeegeeing].”
In June, Partnership representatives sent a letter to Councilman Robert Stokes, who represents a portion of downtown, outlining a plan for an experimental day laborer program, modeled on one in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The letter describes a pilot program that would operate twice a week and cater to first-time adult participants who would otherwise be window washing or panhandling. The workers would have a community maintenance or beautification job rain or shine and get paid $41 in cash at the end of each day, according to the letter.
Edwards estimates squeegee workers need $75 to $100 a week to deter them from cleaning windshields.
The Partnership suggested in the letter to Stokes that the city provide $10,000 to fund the endeavor for a period of 12 weeks. Edwards said she learned of the proposal only in recent weeks. Stokes did not respond to requests for comment.
Squeegee kids weigh in
Some high-traffic intersections in Baltimore are hot spots for squeegeeing. Clusters of young workers often weave between cars near traffic lights at Conway and Charles streets, President and Lombard, North Avenue and Interstate 83, and along Martin Luther King Boulevard.
On North Avenue, words like “entrepreneur,” “clients” and “profits” peppered roadside discussions as some youths waited for a light to change. They looked for their daily regulars, who roll down the window as they approach a traffic light and hand out a dollar.
The group said the work is serious and puts cash in their hands to pay for clothes, food and hygiene products.
Asked about city programs, Leroy, 15, said officials assume they know what’s best for squeegee workers without directly consulting them. The Baltimore Sun is withholding his last name because he is a minor.
“It’s not like we panhandling,” Leroy said. “We’re not asking for money. They buying our hustle."
He said he is saving up his earnings “just in case” he ever needs a car.
“Ever since I started squeegeeing, I don’t got nobody telling me what to do,” he said. “I got my own hours.”
Leandry says he recruits youths into city-run programs by first acknowledging that he’s not there to tell them what’s the “right” way to provide for themselves.
“You can’t tell them they’re doing it wrong,” Leandry said. “It’s hard to tell them that when they’ve figured out how to survive for five years on their own in the street."
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He says the most important service adults can offer Baltimore’s squeegee youths is consistency, which builds trust with boys who’ve previously felt neglected or ignored. Even after Pugh’s Squeegee Corps program ended, Leandry continued to talk with the youths through text message or on social media.
“The kid is never going to buy in if I let him down, just like every other adult in his life,” Leandry said.
Edwards wants a five-year commitment to the Squeegee Alternative Plan, but a looming election year means no one can yet promise with certainty that the plan will survive that long.
Leandry says he was hesitant to rejoin the city’s effort to reach squeegee workers, but changed his mind in May when he bumped into a former Squeegee Corps participant. He learned the young man had graduated from high school and found a job.
But Leandry couldn’t shake a nagging feeling that the job wasn’t enough.
“I still don’t know that he has everything he needs,” Leandry said. The youth was still in the street cleaning windshields before and after work.
Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.