Baltimore's 'squeegee kids' became focus in 1980s. What's different now?

The quandary facing Baltimore leaders over how to address the legions of “squeegee kids” at city intersections echoes the debate from 30 years ago: Are the kids menaces or entrepreneurs?

Mayor Catherine Pugh said she is looking to multiple interventions to encourage the young window washers to abandon the streets:

» A jobs program she is creating with a goal of raising $1.7 million from private donations to give 100 kids part-time work.

» Unarmed security guards to be posted as early as this week along President and Conway streets by the Downtown Partnership.

» Ongoing outreach by city foot patrols to build relationships and monitor their safety.

But, just as the matter divided people in the 1980s, many are split over how vigorously officials should look to clear the children and teens, most of whom are black, as they were a generation ago.

The issue flared in 1985 when the police department came to the City Council with a request for authority to arrest anyone washing windows in traffic. The idea was denounced immediately by some as racist. As the debate stretched over months, the council was often divided between its white and black members.

The council eventually reached a compromise, which called for:

» Identification badges and training for the young window washers.

» Curbside “squeegee stations” overseen by community groups with adults who could supervise the kids.

The program was short-lived. By the summer of 1986, two community groups volunteered to run programs, compared with three the inaugural summer. Fewer than 20 kids enrolled in the programs. Some said they could make $7 at the squeegee stations. On the street, they could make $20 or $30 on a good day.

One councilman at the time proclaimed: “It was a good try, but it just didn’t work out.”

The lack of a solution came with devastating results.

On Aug. 5, 1986, Howard Jermaine Bradshaw, 14, was killed while he was washing a window on a Dodge at 9:47 a.m. while standing on the Maryland Avenue exit ramp from the Jones Falls Expressway. A tractor-trailer leaving the expressway side-swiped a Ford and hit the Dodge, causing the Dodge to spin around, throwing the boy under the wheels of the truck cab, according to The Baltimore Sun archives.

The boy died of head and internal injuries. His friends said he had $200 in earnings in his pocket and was planning to buy two pairs of tennis shoes.

At the boy’s funeral, the Rev. Edith A. Wilson told squeegee kids in the pews of Mount Zion Apostolic Faith Church on Liberty Heights Avenue to keep washing windshields: “Don’t stop washing car windows. As long as you’re getting an honest dollar, wash them.”

“I hope his death wakes up this city,” she continued. “If Jermaine had had a summer job, he wouldn’t be lying here today.”

ywenger@baltsun.com

twitter.com/yvonnewenger

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