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A squeegee kids washes a windshield at the I-83 exit on North Avenue in Baltimore.
A squeegee kids washes a windshield at the I-83 exit on North Avenue in Baltimore. (Kenneth K. Lam)

When a gun enters the contentious squeegee kid debate, we know the issue has hit a tipping point.

Last week, a 45-year-old woman told Baltimore police she flashed her firearm because she thought a group of young people who wash car windows for cash had gotten too aggressive. A struggle ensued when one of the teens reached inside her car, and the gun went off.

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Thankfully, it appears nobody was hurt. But we should all be gravely concerned. The red flags are raised as high as they can go.

No matter whether one believes the woman was justified in her fears of the teenagers or aggressively overreacting, she acted on those feelings, and things could have ended terribly. We might have seen a squeegee kid lying dead in the street or the driver herself wounded by her own gun.

It’s time that everybody take a deep breath and hit reset. We propose a 30-day enforcement of city codes 47-3 through 47-5, which ban aggressive soliciting in public, solicitation of drivers in traffic or on a public street, and nighttime solicitation. Law enforcement should tell anyone violating those laws — including coaches raising money for their sports’ teams and residents selling bottled water — to move along. They should also be prepared to refer the squeegee kids, many of whom are simply looking to put food on the table or help their families pay bills, and others to specific programs and services.

We realize this is no permanent solution. But it’s a start. It would help clear the streets for a period and give the simmering tensions between motorists and the city’s squeegee kids, mostly young men, time to cool down. The mayor’s office should use the reprieve to further its “Squeegee Alternative Plan,” meant to address the underlying poverty that leads kids to the city’s busiest intersections. It is a holistic approach that doesn’t just treat the squeegee kids as castaways in the city that is their home, and we support it.

We don’t want these kids, or anyone else, arrested. That would do nothing but cause harm, including to their future job prospects. We have compassion for the plight of many of these youth. The city’s outreach workers should continue to seek them out and involve them in the Squeegee Alternative Plan, which makes sure the youth go to school, connects them with services and helps them get jobs. The city can also continue reaching out to young people from a database of squeegee workers they have compiled. It might be easier to reach these teenagers when the intersections are not so readily available.

A temporary moratorium will also give the city the time to work with businesses, which sent a letter to Mayor Jack Young about concerns over the window washing, on becoming better partners in the solution. The first meeting of a work group between city representatives and business leaders to brainstorm ideas is not scheduled until early November. Among the city’s goals for the group is fostering a greater understanding and empathy among businesses and their employees toward the squeegee workers and the challenges faced by big cities with high rates of poverty.

The city also has said it needs help funding its alternative program, which is actively working with 34 kids, but no businesses have yet stepped forward to contribute. Businesses could also provide mentoring, job prospects and help underwrite non-profits that can work with the youth. Retailer DTLR has already agreed to give kids who go through the program credits for clothes at their stores when they meet certain milestones. We need to see more such partnerships.

Changing the mindset of the kids is one of the city’s challenges, and it will likely take time to convince a kid who knows nothing else that there are ways to make money other than hustling on the street. This kind of break should allow the city’s program time to develop further and funders to come forward to ensure the alternative they’re presenting is better than the unknown of the streets.

One thing is clear: The fraught relationship between motorists and squeegee kids, further frayed by the sound of one bullet piercing the air, cannot continue. No matter what side of the squeegee debate one aligns, everyone should agree it has reached a dangerous level. We were already concerned about the safety of the young people who dart in and out of traffic, we don’t want to worry about them dodging bullets as well.

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