An employment program pairing former “squeegee kids” with jobs in the hospitality industry will be launched by Baltimore next month as the city implements a 90-day Squeegee Action Plan.
The employment program, which will be offered in partnership with Canopy by Hilton, will provide job training for 10 city youths who have been working as squeegee kids, city officials announced Tuesday. They will work at the Canopy hotel in Baltimore’s Harbor Point, rotating among jobs as bell hops, maintenance staff and working in the hotel’s restaurant, Cindy Lou’s Fish House.
The program and the accompanying action plan are part of a coordinated push by Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration to find alternative employment for the young people who work at busy intersections and clean windshields for money.
The presence of squeegee kids on Baltimore’s streets has have been a flashpoint for years. Drivers unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the practice often complain about the youths, prompting outcry from city businesses who rely on visitors. At times, physical confrontations have erupted. But city officials argue their presence is symptomatic of poverty in Baltimore and needs to be addressed with better social supports.
“This is about figuring out how we can support what they need, so they’re not driven to panhandling, which is essentially what squeegeeing is,” said Faith Leach, Baltimore’s deputy mayor for equity, health and human services.
Baltimore officials have identified at least 180 city youths who squeegee, although there are likely more. That group includes several demographics: school age children under 18; young adults, roughly between the ages of 18 and 24; and a less prevalent group of slightly older adults.
When engaging with the younger group, the objective is to get kids reconnected with school, Leach said.
The employment program, which will launch in mid-December, is targeted at the middle demographic. Outreach officials have selected a group of young adults who they believe are ready for alternative employment, Leach said. Those individuals will first attend one month of employment readiness training, while officials use that time to connect them with any services they may need, such as housing or mental health support.
The group then will transition to working for Canopy by Hilton full-time, with a commitment from the city to cover their wages for up to six months. An effort will be made to find permanent jobs with the company for participants who are interested, Leach said.
The youths participating must commit to stop squeegeeing for the duration of the program, she said.
Leach said the city is seeking more employers to participate in similar programs, but the employers need to understand the challenges of working with squeegee kids, she said.
“The young people who choose to squeegee are presented with a number of challenges,” she said. “One young man was living in a vacant house. Imagine being 20 years old, you have nowhere to go and you’re living in a vacant home.”
Shelonda Stokes, President of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, said she supports the plan. The nonprofit in the past has launched its own outreach efforts to connect youth with services.
“The circumstances that drive our youth to corners for money are deep rooted and require the type of intentionality through public-private partnerships that the Mayor’s plan reflects,” she said in a statement.
Terrell Williams, who helps run Turnaround Tuesday, a jobs program for Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, or BUILD, said he would like to see the city address the underlying issues that drive young people to work in the street.
“We got to find out what’s wrong first,” and address those issues before former squeegee workers can be successful in a job, Williams said.
Those people will need long-term support and investment, he added.
Through Turnaround Tuesday, Williams said, more than 1,100 people, including some former squeegee workers, have been successfully employed. But he said that the BUILD program continues to engage participants for two years to ensure their success.
“Life doesn’t stop because you have a job,” said Williams, pointing out that that many of the underlying issues will persist despite the work. And a new job, he said, “that gives us a whole new set of problems.”
The announcement of the employment program coincides with the release of the city’s 90-Day Squeegee Action plan, which calls for heightened outreach to squeegee kids.
In the first 30 days of that plan, which takes effect immediately, the city will hold bi-weekly outreach events at highly-trafficked squeegee intersections, bringing representatives from the Baltimore school system’s reengagement program, city social services and nonprofits to connect with squeegee kids.
Traffic control officers also will be deployed to known squeegee intersections, and city officials will inspect cameras in those areas to make sure they are working to record should any incidents occur, the plan states.
Within 60 days, Scott’s administration hopes to stand up a Young Black Men and Boys Cabinet to host community conversations and make recommendations to the administration about how to increase intervention efforts for squeegee kids.
The action plan calls for the city to launch a pilot program that will offer same-day payments to youth who work various jobs in the city. Squeegeeing offers quick cash, Leach said, while a traditional job may pay every two weeks. Many of the kids squeegeeing don’t have the luxury of waiting for a paycheck, she said.
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“They’re going out there to hustle for a dollar,” she said, “because they need to buy diapers or take food home for their family.”
Leach said efforts are being heightened now as the holiday season approaches. Research has shown that the holidays are often the most stressful time of year for people in poverty, she said. The city also has seen an increase in the activity in the last few months, she said.
“Many are trying to meet their basic needs,” she said. “They may have young children of their own, they may have families.”
Sieed Ole, a 26-year-old from Baltimore, has been squeegeeing for about three years along Martin Luther King Boulevard. He’s among the squeegee workers registered for the Canopy employment program. Ole said he has experience working as a porter for an apartment building, and would like to make Canopy a permanent job.
Ole said he uses the money he earns squeegeeing for the basics: family, food, coats. Recently, city officials helped to get Ole moved into a room so he would have permanent housing.
Ole urged drivers to show squeegee workers respect. They’ll get respect in return, he said.
“It’s all about respect,” he said. “How you say ‘no’ to somebody. How you tell them to get away from your car. It’s just soap and water, that’s how we look at it.”