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A brush with the Baltimore ‘squeegee problem’ and another level of understanding about it | COMMENTARY

Baltimore City youths work for tips washing windshields as cars stop for the red light at the I-83 exit on North Avenue. City officials and non-profit partners are trying to work on a new, more holistic approach to help the "squeegee kids" move from the street into other jobs.
Baltimore City youths work for tips washing windshields as cars stop for the red light at the I-83 exit on North Avenue. City officials and non-profit partners are trying to work on a new, more holistic approach to help the "squeegee kids" move from the street into other jobs.(Kenneth K. Lam)

We have seen this before: Someone from the suburbs of Baltimore drives downtown, has a bad experience with the “squeegee kids,” writes about it angrily on Facebook, and soon flows the scorn for the squeegees and an entire city.

It happened a couple of weeks ago when Doug Miller, a businessman who resides in Middle River, wrote a 987-word Facebook post about a confrontation with a boy and two young men who, he said, blocked his car at President and Lombard streets and demanded money for washing his windshield after Miller had waved them off.

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According to Miller’s account, one of the young men sprayed him in the face with liquid from a bottle and struck his car with a squeegee. Another kicked his car. The experience, Miller said, terrified his 8-year-old daughter, who was in the vehicle with her father.

“Fearing for my safety I ran the light ... and nearly ran the kid over blocking my car,” Miller wrote on Jan. 3. “I proceeded approximately a half block on President Street with them chasing my car while I was on the phone with 911.”

In a recording of the call provided by Baltimore police, Miller’s daughter can be heard crying and calling out to her dad. The 911 operator calmly took Miller’s report and twice offered consoling words to the girl.

“I am an adult and can handle what is thrown my way, but my daughter shouldn’t have to be exposed to this crap,” Miller wrote. “Last night my mindset was grab my gun, which I’m legally permitted to have, and go back downtown. Instead I went out to eat with my family to calm down.”

Miller wrote that he would never forget the fear on his daughter’s face and “the god awful sound of her screaming and crying.”

He said he waited two hours to speak to a police officer, then only spoke to one by phone.

Miller also said he wrote emails to “a couple city leaders as well as a couple people running for mayor,” but that “not one of them even responded to my email and these are the people in charge or want to be in charge of this dumpster fire of a mess that we call Baltimore City.”

Miller’s post about the incident ended with, “RIP to the city I used to frequent and love.”

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The post, which Miller has since taken down, prompted hundreds of comments, many offering sympathy for Miller and his daughter, but many expressing contempt for the squeegee boys and the city generally.

When I spoke with Miller a few days ago, he emphasized what most upset him — how the experience affected his daughter. He said the young man who sprayed him had profanely dismissed Miller’s concern that he was scaring the girl. By the next day, Miller said, he was still angry and took to Facebook to vent his feelings.

I asked how he felt about the reactions his angry post provoked, particularly some harsh and racist comments about squeegee kids and city life.

“It’s sickening,” Miller said of the responses. “It’s not a race issue. It’s a society issue. … It’s so frustrating. I look at the good in everybody. Something needs to be done.”

Well, people have been trying, as Miller learned in the days after the incident.

A representative of the Office of Children and Family Success, created by Mayor Jack Young last year with orders to renew and revamp the city’s approach to squeegee workers, reached out to Miller.

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City Council President Brandon Scott spoke to Miller by phone. “He said, ‘Sorry, this is what we deal with every day,’” Miller quoted Scott. “He said the problem is, some of the [squeegee] guys can make $100 a day.”

While police have to enforce laws against assault or property damage, Scott said, the city also needs to “address the reasons why so many young people are engaged in this activity in the first place.”

Miller spoke with T.J. Smith, like Young and Scott, a candidate for mayor in April’s primary. Smith has laid out a holistic plan for squeegee workers, with a $1 million price tag in public and private funds. “It is completely unacceptable for us to continue to think it’s OK for young people to run through traffic in an attempt to make ends meet,” Smith says. “They deserve a viable opportunity to earn income in a safe, lawful and reasonable way.” (Read about the plan at tjsmithforbaltimore.com)

Miller spoke with another mayoral candidate, Thiru Vignarajah. He is preparing an approach to squeegee youth that, in addition to offering them supportive services and work in car wash stations, calls for confiscating the tools of their trade to discourage them from returning to it.

Miller also heard from Major Daryl Gaines, commander of the Central District, who expressed regret for the incident and concern for Miller and his daughter.

So there was far more interest in what happened than Miller’s Facebook post let on. His post has since been “made private,” Miller said.

What good came from any of this?

To deal with any thing that’s seen as a problem, you have to understand it first. And, from our conversation and emails, it seems that Doug Miller might have come away with at least that.

After the incident, he heard from another business owner about a young man, said to be a real hustler, who worked with a squeegee to raise money for his family. His name is Jerome.

Miller, who runs an insurance restoration firm in Perry Hall, offered Jerome a full-time job promoting his company door to door. But, after a series of text messages and arrangements for a meeting, Jerome never appeared.

He might have decided it’s better to make quick cash with a squeegee in Baltimore than to take buses to Baltimore County to canvass a neighborhood. And there’s one of the big challenges in moving squeegee workers, and Baltimore generally, to a better place — getting more of the people who live here into decent jobs close to home.

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