‘Scary’ on both sides of the windshield: Squeegee kid debate divides Baltimore

“Rambo” joined the ranks of Baltimore’s “squeegee kids” two years ago, when he was 15 and still selling drugs to help pay for rent and household essentials.

The South Baltimore teen, who asked to be identified only by his nickname, soon learned he could make $200 for a day’s work washing windows and dodging cars in busy intersections, enough to replace what he made slinging dope.

The 17-year-old said he keeps his cool despite being hit by cars and threatened by drivers, and he wants people to remember one thing: “Everybody is not a bad guy.”

“Maybe you’re having a bad day. I don’t know what you’ve been through today. And you don’t know what I’ve been through today,” said Rambo, “so it’s not OK for me to take my anger out on you or for you to take your anger out on me.”

But there’s too often anger at the Baltimore intersections where the squeegee meets the window, where city youth ask — some might say hassle — drivers they might see as better off than they are for some change or a buck for a quick window wash.

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It’s an issue that’s confounded Baltimore leaders for generations: How does the city nurture the window-washing youth and address the needs that drive them into the busy, dangerous intersections looking for tips? At the same time, how can officials assure motorists the opportunity to travel city streets without being extorted for money by the more aggressive window washers, or without having their vehicles damaged when they say no?

To ease the tensions, the Downtown Partnership is hiring unarmed security guards who could appear as early as this week at key intersections around the Inner Harbor. Mayor Catherine Pugh said she is working with the private sector to create a jobs program specifically tailored to the squeegee kids. She said that police, meanwhile, are being deployed to build relationships with the kids and encourage them to find new opportunities away from the streets.

Officials say they are responding to increasing complaints from workers and residents who drive through the city. Motorists have accused the squeegee kids of threatening them, kicking and drawing obscene images on their vehicles and breaking their windows.

That’s what Tony Jordan, a 64-year-old general contractor, said happened to him when he was stopped on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard at Franklin Street about a month ago. A group of teenagers surrounded his old pickup truck and started smearing something slimy across this windshield. He called out to them to stop.

“They started banging, trying to pull the driver’s door open,” Jordan said. “I locked it. And they ran to the passenger’s side and tried that. I am yelling, ‘I am calling 911!’ ”

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One of the boys slammed a squeegee on his windshield, he said, and the glass cracked.

“It shook me,” Jordan said. “In the past when you said, ‘Don’t squirt that crap’ on your window, they didn’t squirt that crap on the window. All you have to do now is drive down MLK, you’ve got beggars on every corner with cardboard signs and squeegee kids.”

But some advocates say these kids are a visual sign of both the poverty and hopelessness that exist in Baltimore’s struggling neighborhoods and the spirit of the young people to rise above those challenges. If the city is to successfully persuade the squeegee kids to leave their posts, they say, it is going to take more than police, security guards and a jobs program.

Terrell Williams, a 56-year-old community builder, said many of the squeegee kids are working for tips to pay for basic needs their parents can’t or won’t provide for them.

“They are left to really fend for themselves,” said Williams, who helps run a jobs program for Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, or BUILD. “These young people need hope. They need to know they’re valued, they’re special. There is another life. It is scary for me to drive up on them sometimes. And, I realize in listening to them, it is scary for them, too.”

Baltimore’s squeegee kids appeared at least as early as the 1960s. As the activity waxed and waned over years, as it has in such far-flung places as Canada, England and New Zealand, officials have tried various approaches to control it.

A City Council effort in the 1980s erupted into a bitter, racially divided battle. In 1985, the council settled on a compromise to create curbside “squeegee stations,” where adults could monitor, train and try to keep the kids safe. But the stations never took off; the young people discovered they could make only a fraction of the money there. The next year, a 14-year-old boy was hit by a tractor-trailer and killed while washing a driver’s window on a Jones Falls Expressway ramp onto Maryland Avenue.

This summer and into the fall, many say they believe the activity has ticked up — and so has the number of negative interactions between drivers and the kids. That’s why the Downtown Partnership is spending $3,000 a week to hire security guards to monitor key intersections.

Police have not provided data to show whether more kids are washing windows in city intersections or whether arrests or crimes are up.

The Pugh administration estimates 100 squeegee kids are working in the city, but Williams believes that estimate significantly undercounts the number that could at any time decide to give window washing a try.

Williams said he is trying to raise $75,000 to hire a full-time organizer to spend time asking the boys and teens who wash windows to talk about their lives, their dreams and the obstacles in their way. He wants to take that information and create a business, such as a car wash or year-round maintenance facility, where the boys have intense mentoring and leadership training to prepare them for jobs.

“You have to change their thinking, how they see the world,” Williams said. “You can’t just open up a jobs program. It’s about finding their agency.”

Pugh said the jobs program she is looking to create will have coaching components. She wants to raise $1.7 million from donations to give 100 squeegee kids part-time work, and hopes to flesh out the program details in the next several months.

But getting the kids into such programs could prove challenging. Not only are they unlikely to pay off like the street hustle, kids like Rambo just aren’t interested in a formal program. He said he wants to come and go as he pleases, not on someone else’s schedule.

The mayor welcomed the Downtown Partnership’s plan for security guards at Conway and President streets during morning and evening rush hours as a complement to her administration’s work.

“Them stepping in is just a plus for the city,” Pugh said. “All they’re trying to do is help the city and improve the safety for everyone.”

Meanwhile, police are being deployed on foot to interact with the kids. Pugh said no one — not the kids, panhandlers or vendors — is allowed to be in the streets, blocking the flow of traffic.

But complicating the police enforcement is the U.S. Department of Justice’s consent decree that requires the department to better protect constitutional rights and a 4th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that affirms some free speech protections for begging at intersections.

Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer who now teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said eliminating window washing in traffic comes down to political will. Despite the legal challenges, police have enough enforcement tools at their disposal to effectively shut down the practice. Many point to the success New York City had in eliminating what that city called “squeegee men” in the 1990s by cracking down on related offenses, such as jaywalking and littering.

Allowing the squeegeeing activity to continue when some have reported illegal behavior by the kids, including destruction of property, is asking drivers to “roll the dice” as they drive through the city, he said.

“Do you want kids squeegeeing on the corner or not?” Moskos said. “Quality of life matters, and you can still say Baltimore has 99 problems that aren’t going to be fixed and you can choose to have this or not. You don’t have to fix society to get rid of people squeegeeing.”

To Del. Nick Mosby, whose district includes Martin Luther King Boulevard and swaths of West Baltimore where some squeegee kids come from, the matter is about more than law and order. The kids washing windows are growing up in violent communities hurt by drugs and crime. It could be tempting for them to look to more dangerous behavior to meet their basic needs. Instead, he said, they’re trying to provide a service.

Mosby worries about the addition of the security guards, which he believes could lead to a new set of problems and confrontations.

“It is ridiculously short-sighted,” Mosby said. “It is doubling down on the school-to-prison pipeline effect. Our children, our young folks are clearly a byproduct of a failed system.

“This is an opportunity for us to be creative, to try to meet the needs.”

Baltimore Sun research librarian Paul M. McCardell contributed to this article.

ywenger@baltsun.com

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