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Baltimore City young people, also known as squeegee kids, work for tips washing car windshields.
Baltimore City young people, also known as squeegee kids, work for tips washing car windshields. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Now that it is a new year, many of us have spent some time reflecting on our successes and failures. We have taken stock of what’s worked and what hasn’t, and have inevitably resolved to do better, or do more, in 2020.

I spent this past year doing a great deal of “soul searching” myself. I expanded the non-profit I founded in Washington, D.C., H.E.R. Resiliency Center, to include Baltimore, and spent a lot of time getting to know the young people in my Pigtown neighborhood. This was how I became friends with the “squeegee kids,” who often hang out at the corner of Washington and Martin Luther King Jr. boulevards. Last summer, Baltimore officials pledged to do better by these young folks, and I wonder if they’ve kept their resolution.

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I remember last January, when a young man approached my car with a spray bottle and squeegee. I waved him off mainly because I don’t carry cash. He washed my windshield anyway, so I stopped at a 7-11 convenience store and bought him a hot chocolate. I got four dollars in cash back and wrapped the bills around my business card. I went back to the corner where a group of the young men huddled to keep warm. I sought out the one who’d washed my car and told him three things:

  • “Here is $4, I will never give you money again.”
  • “Here is a large hot chocolate, 7-11 has the best hot chocolate in the world.”
  • “Here is my card, you call me, and I will help you find a different job.”

He smiled ear to ear and asked if he could hug me. That’s how I became friends with the young man who now works for my City Council campaign.

I read many stories after our first meeting about what a nuisance the squeegee boys are to Baltimore residents and commuters. Some complained that they “scare people” and others complained of legitimate traffic and safety concerns. As I looked further into the matter, I found that the squeegee kids have been around for decades. And so have promises to provide “alternatives” to their controversial hustle. What I haven’t found is anyone having meaningful conversations with these young people about what they want for themselves.

So I started bringing them sodas, giving them the occasional ride when it was raining and connecting them to other resources like groceries and mattresses for their families. I observed their determination and marveled at how, in my work, I get credit for persistence in finding grants or donations. When they are just as persistent to make money, they are called aggressive or disruptive.

I eventually asked them why they do it — continue to wash windshields despite all the flack they catch because of it. “We do it because of the bonds we’ve made with each other,” one of them told me.

It was at this point that it all made sense to me because I know what that’s like. I told them a bit more about myself. That I have been in recovery from drugs and alcohol for 18 years. And sometimes I still just go to meetings to be with the people I’ve built bonds with — because “they get me.” We talked about how our stories might not be the same, but I know what it’s like to have needs that aren’t being met in conventional ways.

Over the last year, we’ve talked about taking ownership of our community and our lives — how this extends from keeping our neighborhoods clean to taking care of our own health. The responsibility lies with each of us to step up and speak out for the change we wish to see. As a result of these conversations with the squeegee kids, I began to see a path to the kind of change we need in Baltimore and decided to run for City Council.

As I reflect on 2019, I am grateful for the friendships I’ve built and proud of the campaign we’ve launched to bring prosperity and stability to District 10. I look forward to holding the city to its resolutions and having the community hold me to mine.

Natasha Guynes (Natashaguynes@gmail.com) is a candidate for Baltimore City Council District 10.

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