Baltimore's squeegee dilemma

People who drive through downtown Baltimore report a wide variety of experiences with the squeegee kids who try to make money by cleaning windshields at traffic lights. Some people are happy to give them a dollar or two, and to exchange a few words as they pass by. Some people habitually wave them off without incident. Others say they have found the kids (or at least some of them) to be uncomfortably persistent, that they have to gesticulate and yell to get them to move on. At the extreme end, some drivers report frightening confrontations — broken windshields, attempted robberies.

It’s no surprise, then, that views about how the city should deal with them vary, from leaving them alone to finding some other occupation for them to arresting them for impeding traffic or some other offense. But whether you view them as hard-working young men trying to make money to support themselves and their families, as a menace to motorists, or an eyesore and nuisance, we would hope that everyone would agree that what they're doing is simply not safe. They are moving in and out of traffic, and it is only a matter of time before one of them is badly hurt or killed. It has happened at least once before (in the 1980s, during our last major squeegee debate) and it’s liable to happen again. On those grounds at least, it is incumbent on us as a city to find a way to end this practice.

But how?

Posting unarmed guards at a few squeegee corners, as the Downtown Partnership has said it will do, is not likely to accomplish that. At best, it could help keep the squeegee kids on good behavior — at least those along President and Conway streets — and at worst, it could make the whole situation more confrontational.

Mayor Catherine Pugh’s idea to find them some other form of employment — she tried pop-up car washes — is good in theory but difficult in practice. Just how much money the squeegee kids are making, we don’t know. One of them told The Sun’s Yvonne Wenger that he can make $200 on a good day. That seems like a lot, but if it wasn’t worthwhile financially, they wouldn’t be doing it. A job that pays minimum wage or even a bit more probably isn’t going to compare, particularly after payroll taxes.

(As a side note before anyone gets huffy about the black market economy, ask yourself how often suburban kids pay taxes on the money they make babysitting, mowing lawns and raking leaves.)

We have no empirical evidence that the number of squeegee kids has increased, but anecdotally, it appears to be the case. Before we can address the issue, we need to understand why that is. Are the squeegee kids just out to earn some pocket money, or are they helping to feed their families? Have their needs changed? Are they connected to each other through some kind of network? Are there leaders among them? Is there any kind of informal code that governs what they do? Why do people seem to age out of the practice? What do they do then?

What we could really use is a squeegee sociologist. The Downtown Partnership says the unarmed guards could help connect the boys and young men to services, but that’s not their area of expertise. We need to conduct the same kind of trust-building outreach with the squeegee kids that Baltimore’s civic groups have attempted (with varying degrees of success and varying degrees of cooperation from City Hall) with the homeless population. Only by understanding who the squeegee kids are and why they’re doing what they do will we have a realistic chance of steering them toward something safer (and, we hope, less divisive).

We don’t know what the solution is to the squeegee problem, but we know we’re not going to find it by approaching it from the driver’s side of the interaction.

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