Saying that impeding traffic is illegal, Mayor Bernard C. "Jack" Young pledged Wednesday to develop a plan to address panhandlers and squeegee kids who weave in and out of Baltimore traffic to get money from drivers.
Young is the latest Baltimore official to try to take on the perennial issue. When asked what solution he will take, the mayor said “we’re working on that now.” He did not offer any details, except that he has asked Police Commissioner Michael Harrison and the new Mayor’s Office of Children and Family Success to work together to develop a response.
“They are in the middle of the street and it’s illegal and we must address it,” Young said. “Some folk have said they don’t even want to ride through downtown anymore, and I don’t want to hear that.
“I want people to feel that Baltimore City is a welcoming city.”
Council President Brandon Scott said the issue is complex, especially for the squeegee kids who have appeared at intersections since at least the 1960s. Some of the young window washers come to the streets for desperate reasons, he said.
“No, we can’t have young people — or younger people — who are banging on people’s cars,” Scott said. “But what we have to do is find a complete solution, not just a ‘moving it’ solution.
“We have to put young people in situations where they are not endangering themselves or other people. We also have to understand that some of the young people are out there doing that because that’s the only way they’re going to eat.”
The solution must involve employment opportunities and accountability measures, Scott said.
A new enforcement initiative in Newark, N.J., drew widespread attention last month when the city’s director of public safety announced that police there would issue $50 fines to drivers who give cash to people soliciting money at intersections. The tickets come on the grounds the action creates a safety hazard and delays traffic.
While the tickets are considered part of a larger effort to combat homelessness in Newark, Scott said he was skeptical of adopting it in Baltimore.
“Our police department can barely handle the calls for service that they have now,” Scott said.
Councilman Eric Costello, whose district includes downtown, said such legislation could be subject to legal challenges. Still, he left open the possibility of seeking some sort of legislative solution that incorporates input from many groups. Costello said any plan must address the lack of economic and recreational opportunity, which he believes is the underlying issue.
Costello said a solution is necessary, as he has received “a significant number of requests” concerning people accosting motorists and damaging their vehicles in the public right of way.
“It is not safe for anyone, especially kids, to be walking around in traffic outside of a crosswalk,” Costello said. “However, I also want to acknowledge that it is counterproductive and silly to criminalize young people who find creative ways to earn money. By and large, the individuals — both adults and kids — cleaning vehicles are not engaged in illegal behavior, but a small number are; we cannot permit the few individuals who do display aggressive behavior in our public right of way to go unchecked.”
Former Mayor Catherine Pugh, who resigned in May, said she was working with the private sector to create a jobs program for the window washers. She had said she wanted to raise $1.7 million to get the kids work, but it is unclear where her efforts stood when she left office.
The Downtown Partnership has stationed monitors since the fall to watch squeegee activity at key intersections around the Inner Harbor. The patrols continue five days a week, for eight hours a day.
Michael Evitts, a senior vice president for the partnership, said the group is planning to evaluate the effectiveness of the initiative later this summer. Anecdotally, he said, the partnership receives fewer complaints about squeegee activity during the hours the monitors are working.
A solution has confounded Baltimore leaders for generations. In the 1980s, the matter turned bitter and split the City Council along racial lines. Eventually, the council came up with a plan to create curbside stations where kids could safely earn money washing windows. But the program was never successful. The year after the stations closed, in the mid-80s, a 14-year-old boy was killed by a tractor-trailer while he was washing someone’s window on the Jones Falls Expressway ramp onto Maryland Avenue.