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Baltimore mayor: squeegee debate missing youth voices

Mayor Young and Tisha Edwards,head of Mayor’s Office of Children and Family Success, discuss "Squeegee Alternative Plan" and deployment of bike patrol officers.

For an 18-year-old high school student I met recently, afternoons are particularly stressful. Sitting in class, the young man said, he finds it impossible to focus on schoolwork. His mind is too busy thinking about his next meal.

With his nuclear family not intact and money scarce, the burden to pay for the daily snacks and quick meals that fuel most teenagers falls squarely on his shoulders. Securing an afterschool job proved difficult, so he instead followed the path of a friend who earned cash squeegeeing car windshields at busy intersections.

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“People think we like being out there, but we don’t,” the Edmondson Village resident told me during a recent meeting at City Hall. “It's not easy on hot days, and a lot of times you just want to go home and say ‘forget this,’ but you can't because you need to make money. So, I'm in a situation where I am sitting in class at the end of the day and the only way I can guarantee I'll eat the next day is by going outside on the streets.”

I sat down recently with a trio of teenagers who have earned money squeegeeing. My meeting reinforced that their work is extremely dangerous and that our children are deserving of so much more support. They agreed to allow me to share their stories. I have withheld their names to protect their privacy.

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For years, residents of Baltimore, along with visitors, have engaged in heated debates about young people who squeegee to earn money. Some believe the teenagers are victims in need of support, while others have complained about encounters that they say have turned threatening, sometimes resulting in damage to automobiles or allegations of assaults on drivers.

There have been many voices jockeying for position, but glaringly absent from these conversations have been the words of the teens in question.

Several months ago, I tasked Tisha Edwards, who serves as the director of the Mayor’s Office of Children and Family Success, (MOCFS) with developing a comprehensive strategy to help transition our young people from working at dangerous intersections to more sustainable opportunities for employment and mentorship.

She spent two months interviewing young people who engage in squeegeeing, youth advocates, business owners, and education and human service professionals to better understand youth panhandlers in Baltimore. What resulted was a “Squeegee Alternative Plan” that includes five focus areas designed to disrupt situations that encourage panhandling or squeegeeing.

The plan would help us encourage meaningful work through a transitional jobs/earn-as-you-grow program to provide immediate financial relief to the youth, made possible with the help of community partners.

We have also hired two full-time staff members to lead outreach and recruitment of youth who squeegee into the MOCFS Connect-2-Success program to provide support for the young people. These youth support workers reach out to youth daily.

They are also leading the effort to remove employment barriers, by ensuring youth have the necessary identification and vital records to enroll in school and/or to get a job.

In addition, school-aged youth are referred to Baltimore City Public Schools for intensive supports, including a mandatory Student Support Team meeting and review of the student’s current school placement to ensure it supports his or her individual academic needs.

And finally, in a limited fashion, we will deploy bike patrol police officers to the locations where there are the most reported complaints with the goal of ensuring the safety of commuters and the young people who earn money by squeegeeing.

The path ahead won’t be easy. But when have Baltimoreans ever shied away from the difficult?

In the coming months, I plan to work with members of our business and philanthropic communities to build support for our plan, which would provide opportunities for our young people.

As we engage in this work, let’s remember the young people like the teenager described above and his friend, a 17-year-old senior at Patterson High School, who told me recently that he’s tired of squeegeeing and desperately wants to leave the corners but doesn’t feel like he has much of a choice.

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“My grandmother doesn’t like me out there because she knows it’s not safe but what else can I do.”

I’m confident that together we can help these young men pursue their passions and gain valuable experiences that will help them well into the future.

Bernard C. “Jack” Young is Mayor of Baltimore. His email is mayor@baltimorecity.gov and his Twitter handle is @mayorbcyoung.

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