Baltimore developing $2 million program for 'squeegee kids'

"You just trying to pay bills, forreal," says Blue, a squeegee kid in Baltimore. A look at the business of being a squeegee kid. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun video)

The persistent issue of squeegee kids traversing between cars at any number of intersections across our city is understandably a major concern, though certainly not a new one. As many are aware, this is a problem that has been pervasive since at least the 1980s and with scarcely any real effort to solve it. I, too, am eager to develop sustainable solutions. But first, it's worth sharing a few insights and lessons I've learned.

Clearly, squeegee kids are not the only ones on our corners. At too many intersections, there are also panhandlers with cardboard signs, as well as sellers of water, soda, newspapers, flowers and other items. The difference with some squeegee kids, of course, is their tendency to congregate in numbers and on the same corners, creating understandable anxiety and even fear among idle motorists. What some of those eager to earn a dollar or two for washing a windshield do not sufficiently understand is that "no" means just that — NO. It's in these cases that unfortunate consequences, scenarios and impressions result. To be clear, no one should have to endure any form of abuse or harassment while driving on our city streets or sitting idle at a traffic light.

Police are investigating an incident in which a squeegee kid smashed a driver's back windshield. (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun video)

Last year, in an attempt to address the squeegee problem, we dispatched staff to the corners and recruited roughly 25 qualified young people for a special youth-worker program, and we also created "pop-up" car washes. The most entrepreneurial of them loved the pop-up car washes since it enabled them to supplement the money they were making on street corners. During one of the pop-up car washes, eight young people earned over $700. At the same time, we put many of the younger squeegee kids to work in our BMORE Beautiful program, aimed at beautifying areas of our city, cleaning debris from empty lots and promoting personal responsibility for the way our neighborhoods look. This program is ongoing and employs approximately 50 youths who work on Saturdays, are paid for four hours of work and provided a meal.

Many want someone merely to listen to them and help them solve problems that they should not have to bear at their young age. Like the squeegee kids, those recruited to the BMORE Beautiful program face many of the same problems — some are grade-school and high school dropouts, some are homeless, some have criminal records. Others are just struggling to figure out how to access the job market. We worked with a number of them to help them secure a job, a place to live or to enroll in a GED program.

Not surprisingly, these young people taught us a few things: For youth employment programs to have a real impact, they need to be sustainable. In other words, you can't pop up a car wash today and not pop one up tomorrow. There needs to be some predictability. Also, many of these young people are truly entrepreneurial in spirit and want to work. They just need help, guidance and often some simple words of encouragement.

And so, where does that leave us?

We are currently developing the next iteration of our Squeegee Corps. Through our own analysis, we've set a goal of enticing 100 young people to permanently leave street corners by providing them with a stipend and the opportunity to enter our "Earn While You Learn" program. Those who accept will be enrolled in a year-round program similar to our very successful summer YouthWorks program. They will receive financial literacy training, lessons in how to develop a business plan and run a business. They will be involved in landscaping, site cleaning, car washes (stationary and mobile), and they will also be connected when possible with other organizations and groups to form sustainable partnerships. We will further provide employment resources and job training, as well as social service needs as appropriate.

The estimated cost of this effort is close to $2 million annually, and we are intent on securing funding for at least the next two years. Moreover, it's our intention to fully measure the impact of the program and, where necessary, improve the prospects of its success. Support from the private sector will do much to augment the commitment we're prepared to make with city personnel, programs and resources. We will also explore funding from the newly-established Baltimore Youth Fund. To date, we've received our first $50,000 donation with only a conversation with a few business folks. And so you see, real solutions are in our grasp, and I'm confident that we can put forth a sustainable program for the squeegee kids of our city.

Every city resident needs to know that we are intensely focused on the problems facing Baltimore, which have gone on far too long. The squeegee kids have been now a reality for over 30 years. Whether they continue to be a reality in the days ahead will depend on our ability to offer compelling and sustainable alternatives.

Catherine E. Pugh is the mayor of Baltimore City; she can be reached at