The teenagers with their bottles of window cleaner and squeegees that have become a common presence on major downtown thoroughfares have created a major schism in Baltimore circles.
So fed up are the heads of some of Baltimore’s major corporations that they have written a letter to city officials demanding that something be done, strategically pointing out high in the correspondence that they employee thousands of people and contribute millions of dollars to the tax base.
We caution everyone with a stake to take a step back and be careful not to demonize these 100 or so kids, mostly boys, who are showing an entrepreneurial spirit, rather than begging on the corner, or worse, dealing drugs. We’ll be the first to acknowledge that the presence of squeegee kids is problematic in many ways, but we would urge everyone to look on them not as menaces to be eliminated but as prime candidates for help.
We understand it’s annoying when a teenager touches your car or asks a little too insistently to clean a window. Sometimes the teenagers may get aggressive and rap the window with a squeegee in frustration. Sometimes teenagers lose their cool, and that behavior needs to be corrected. They have to learn to respect people’s space and property. But those negative interactions are the exceptions. There are more instances when squeegee kids will clean a window despite someone not having cash, or nod in understanding and draw a heart on a driver’s windshield. Perhaps what makes the drivers uncomfortable is less the perception that squeegee kids represent an actual danger than the fact that they force us to confront the reality of Baltimore’s poverty on a daily basis.
We also must point out that it is not just the teenagers who are instigators in squeegee boy disputes. Sometimes drivers are the antagonists. There’s plenty of fault to go around.
We were glad to see that despite their complaints, the representatives from T. Rowe Price, Morgan Stanley, M&T Bank, PNC Bank, Transamerica, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Miles & Stockbridge, Tydings & Rosenberg, Gordon Feinblatt and Cushman & Wakefield realize the need to address poverty, unemployment and job creation, and not just push the squeegee kids off the street. We need a holistic approach that balances deep-seated social issues with the needs of the business community without looking at the squeegee boys as throw-aways with no potential.
City officials say they have been quietly rolling out such a plan since mid July to connect the squeegee kids with resources. We are not sure why their actions were clandestine, but we are pleased to see something in the works. Not only does the plan address the safety of the squeegee kids (because dodging in and out of cars is not safe for anyone), but it looks at the employment potential of these teenagers as well. We ascertain that one of the attractive points of hustling on the street is that they control their hours. A couple of hours of work and they can buy their family dinner for the night. Who knows what is going on in the homes of these teenagers that makes it hard for them to hold a regular job.
What these squeegee kids don’t lack is drive. Clearly they have the motivation and hustle to earn a living. How do we hone those skills into productive employment? Arresting kids with this potential will only start a lifetime in the criminal justice system and is not the right answer. City officials also need to make sure these teenagers are in school. Now that the academic year has started, we should see fewer squeegees on the street during the day. Truancy officers need to make sure this is the case.
Hopefully when business leaders meet with city officials as planned, they will look at ways that they can be part of the solution. We are not saying they aren’t already doing their fair share, but more can always be done. City officials say their “Squeegee Alternative Plan” needs about $1 million to operate. Businesses could start there by helping with funding.
But maybe they can also try and embrace these kids who already seem to have a natural knack for business. Someone who’s willing to stand in traffic in the hot sun of a Baltimore summer in hopes of earning a buck might have great potential with some education, experience and direction. Mentor and employ them rather than roll by them in the car each day with little regard for their predicament. Maybe if they have other alternatives, they will get off the streets.