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Crime

Addressing root causes of squeegee work is monumental task with no easy solution, Baltimore officials agree

After a deadly confrontation between a group of squeegee workers and a baseball bat-wielding driver earlier this month reignited a long-standing political debate about poverty, structural racism and public safety in Baltimore, officials expressed widespread agreement that addressing the root causes of panhandling is a monumental task — one the city needs to prioritize.

Many of the young people who wash windshields for money at busy downtown intersections are there out of necessity. Before they can transition to gainful employment, their basic needs must be met, officials said Wednesday during a hearing before a City Council committee.

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Those could include housing, food, transportation and counseling. Maybe they need identification, appropriate work clothes and interview preparation. Some are much too young to join the workforce.

“We need an army of resources to help our children,” said Andrey Bundley, director of the Mayor’s Office of African American Male Engagement. “Will we build that? Will all of Baltimore step up? That’s my question.”

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Davion Hodges, 22, said he picked up a squeegee years ago, one of many ways he hustled to earn money and help support himself after losing his mom as a teenager. Even before that, he and his sisters sold candy and snacks out of their home — “anything to make a dollar.”

Now, Hodges works at the Revival Hotel through a city employment program for squeegee workers. He spoke at Wednesday’s hearing in hopes of setting an example for other young people hustling to make ends meet. If the goal is getting young people off the corners, he said, a blanket approach won’t work because “nobody’s story is the same.”

“We want to be looked at as more than just a number, just one of the squeegee kids,” said Lance White, 20, another former squeegee worker who started at Hotel Revival last week. “Everybody’s race through life is different.”

During the hearing, which lasted about three hours, officials acknowledged entrenched social issues and grasped at solutions.

Councilman Mark Conway, chair of the Public Safety and Government Operations Committee, said directing police officers to clear corners of squeegee workers might stop the practice temporarily but would fail to address the root causes.

“There is no silver bullet,” said Deputy Mayor Faith Leach, who oversees outreach efforts and other programs aimed at helping squeegee workers. She said now is the time to think big and do more.

Outreach workers are focusing currently on 25 high-traffic intersections, engaging with squeegee workers on a daily basis, officials said. They have a list of 117 squeegee workers who have agreed to engage with services. Leach said the goal is to grow that list.

“We have an opportunity to serve as a national model for how to treat Black boys,” she said. “They are not a problem to be solved; they are the sons of Baltimore and they deserve our very best.”

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Councilman Zeke Cohen asked about exploring a universal basic income program for squeegee workers and their families. The city launched a similar pilot program for young parents earlier this year. He said the model could be integral to meeting the basic needs of vulnerable youth.

The hearing came amid amplified debate surrounding what officials are calling the “squeegee issue” after the deadly July 7 confrontation. Timothy Reynolds, 48, approached a group of squeegee workers swinging a baseball bat at the intersection of Light and Conway streets. He died from gunshot wounds after one of the youths opened fire.

Baltimore police later arrested a suspect, who turned 15 the day after the shooting. He has been charged with first-degree murder, though his attorneys have argued he shot in self-defense and should face a lesser charge.

Most squeegee workers are teens and young men from impoverished neighborhoods. Many need the immediate cash, a benefit not usually offered through job training programs and traditional employment.

But some business and political leaders consider them a nuisance at best and a public safety threat at worst. Accusations of harassment, violence and property destruction, sometimes substantiated, are regularly used as evidence the city should do more.

Complaints have surfaced recently about some squeegee workers scamming drivers out of money and displaying menacing behavior, though it remains unclear whether such incidents have actually increased in frequency.

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Just hours before the July 7 shooting, Baltimore police responded to the same intersection and confiscated an unloaded BB gun from a squeegee worker after reports that he threatened someone with a weapon, according to police. Outreach workers with the city later contacted the group of kids in hopes of connecting them with services and potential employment opportunities.

On July 18, officers arrested a 12-year-old after reports that a squeegee worker fired a BB gun at two people walking near the intersection of East Fayette and President streets near Baltimore Police Headquarters downtown. Medics treated the two people for abrasions to the arms and torso, according to police. They told officers a squeegee worker in the area taunted them, then pulled out a gun and fired it. The weapon was later identified as a BB gun, police said.

Other people have complained about payment app scams where squeegee workers ask for payment through Cash App or Zelle, two digital money transfer programs. As of July 1, Baltimore Police said the department had recorded 18 cases where squeegee workers got people to hand over their phones and then used an app to transfer large sums of money to themselves. Updated data wasn’t available.

That’s what happened to Michele Owens, who recently drove through downtown Baltimore while visiting relatives in the area and ended up losing $2,000.

When some squeegee workers came up to her car at the intersection of President and Lombard streets, Owens apologized that she didn’t have cash. One of the young men told her they could accept Cash App or Zelle instead. She tried to take a picture of his Cash App information so she could download the app later, but eventually he took her phone to facilitate the transaction. He kept reassuring her that everything was OK, Owens said, but she felt trapped and uneasy.

“My hand was shaking,” she said. “I was thinking in the back of my mind that these guys could be armed.”

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She was relieved to finally get her phone back and drive away. When she later pulled over to check her bank account, she found a Zelle transfer of $2,000 and called her bank immediately to report a fraudulent transaction. She also reported the theft to Baltimore police. She found out Wednesday that the funds had been reimbursed.

In a tweet earlier this week, Mayor Brandon Scott advised Baltimore residents to be aware of such scams.

“Do not give your phone to anyone you do not know!” wrote Scott, asking people who have experienced theft to contact police.

At the hearing Wednesday, officials also advised people to implement two-factor authentication for payment apps or use facial recognition technology when possible.

“We know this is very much a preventable issue,” Leach said.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said officers have been instructed to monitor intersections where squeegee workers frequently congregate, hoping an increased police presence will deter crime. Officers also are focused on confiscating weapons, making arrests for damage to vehicles when it occurs and investigating reports of theft, Harrison said.

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Department spokeswoman Lindsey Eldridge said officials are working to compile comprehensive data on incidents involving squeegee workers since its record-keeping system doesn’t include that classification.

Scott recently reiterated his previous stance on the issue, saying the solution is not having police “clear corners,” though his critics are calling for a more heavy-handed approach. Long before the recent deadly confrontation, his administration was focused on outreach and employment opportunities.

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In a recent Baltimore Sun opinion piece, Scott acknowledged the context of the recent tragedy and the symbolism surrounding squeegee workers, who represent a host of deep-seated social issues plaguing Baltimore’s most vulnerable communities, including structural racism and disinvestment.

“Baltimore, we have been here before. A high-profile act of violence that seems to shake the foundation of our city to the core and seemingly has the potential to destroy Baltimore all together,” the mayor wrote. “Adding in the potentially explosive facts that this tragedy is a result of a conflict between a white man and Black youth who squeegee, and you have the perfect storm.”

Deputy City Solicitor Ebony Thompson said Wednesday that panhandling is a First Amendment protected activity, so any proposed enforcement strategy “has to strike a balance between public safety and the constitutional rights of workers.”

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Scott convened a group of local stakeholders to develop a strategy for handling issues related to squeegee workers. Dubbed the “squeegee collaborative,” the group includes business, nonprofit and youth leaders and elected officials. They held their second meeting Tuesday and will continue meeting for the next several weeks.

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Collaborative co-chair Joe Jones, founder and CEO of the Center for Urban Families in Baltimore, said the discussion Tuesday incorporated the varying perspectives of current and former squeegee workers, business leaders and more. He said they discussed what success would look like, while remaining sensitive to the historical context of the issue.

“What we don’t want to do is roll up our sleeves and, at the end of the day, kick this down the road for another generation of civic leaders,” he said. “We are going to take it upon ourselves to develop an equitable plan that … makes us proud of our city.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Lee O. Sanderlin contributed to this article.


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