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The Unseen Struggle of Baltimore’s Squeegee Kids

The Unseen Struggle of Baltimore’s Squeegee Kids

I live just outside of Baltimore, MD, and over the years, as the crime rate has increased, I find myself less and less willing to set foot in the city. To paint a picture, there are over 300 homicides in the city per year, as well as more than 700 non-fatal shootings. There was a shooting in front of my favorite restaurant – Fogo de Chao in downtown Baltimore by the Harbor. One of the most tourist-friendly parts of the city. Most people in Baltimore know someone who has been shot or killed. For the youth of Baltimore, there are even sadder statistics. The men are not there: 15% of youths have a parent in prison and single parent homes make up nearly 60% of the population. The school graduation rate is less than 70%, and a percentage of the graduates can’t read. So, what is there for these youths to do? They wipe windshields.

I remember when I first saw enterprising youths who were standing at street corners in the heat of the summer selling cold bottles of water. I applauded them. It was a reasonable side hustle in my mind. The IRS might not like it, but they had my full support. The squeegee kids have been around since the 1980’s. Some people lump them in with panhandlers, or worse, prostitutes, or worse, gang members, or worse, drug dealers. And yet, these youths and young men look at it as making an honest living in a city that has failed them. Squeegee kids are making between $40-200 a day. They save it for the future, or help their parents pay rent. Take their families to dinner. Many of them are good kids. They can be a bit aggressive, which is off-putting, but they are not generally violent.

Unfortunately, there was an altercation last year that drove the squeegee issue to the front page. A man got out of his car with a baseball bat to go after a squeegee kid. And the kid shot him. Definitely two wrongs here, but someone was dead, and it indicated a problem that couldn’t be ignored.

When there was a death that involved squeegee kids in the 1980’s, the white members of the City Council voted to make it illegal. Eventually it was set up so that incarceration was not the outcome. But the number of squeegee kids dwindled. For a while.

The new generation of squeegee kids is trying to avoid jail, gangs, drug dealing and death, while still finding a means of making a living. They are 10-22 years old. They are not going back to school. There is nothing there for therm. So, what solution is there for them that addresses the compendium of issues that drove them outside to begin with.

One of the reasons why the issue is being addressed is that some of the more aggressive squeegee kids were at major intersections, harassing tourists. So, the city identified 7 intersections that were to be squeegee free. Squeegee kids moved on to other street corners, and the bigger problem was not solved. Giving Baltimore credit, no one wanted to put the squeegee kids in prison. So, the solution began with a conversation. What would it take to get you to give up the business. The answer was financial opportunity. So, that was the solution. A lot of people didn’t like it. Squeegee kids were being paid to give up their trade and attend workforce development programs with the endpoint being a job. Community workers and police officers would find the kids, tell them about the programs and persuade them to leave the streets, with the alternative being a police warning, followed by citation.

Is it working? Last year, the count of squeegee kids was 180, although there are probably more. The program, started in January, is called the Squeegee Collaborative or Mayor’s Office of African American Male Engagement, is sponsored by T. Rowe Price and involves 7 city agencies and community-based organizations in the city – some specifically aimed at youth engagement – as well as mentors and potential employers. The results that have come in most recently show that:

  • squeegee incidents have been reduced dramatically, with police officers resolving issues without citations,
  • 7 specially designated high traffic locations have been made into no-squeegee corners and now have minimal activity and
  • 76 under-18 kids and 79 over-18 youth have enrolled in the program, which is over half of the squeegee kid population.

But the results are not perfect. Only 5 kids have gone back to school. Only half of the young men have jobs.

Other cities are watching the Squeegee Collaborative. It is unique in that it pays the kids a stipend, which has had severe criticism. It is powerful in that it is moving the kids into gainful employment with a future. It is encouraging to see the kids completing GEDs, and moving toward higher education, leaving the streets behind. At the same time, it is making the streets of Baltimore safer, for the kids and the drivers.

I am impressed and encouraged at the number of kids who have decided to participate. I am saddened at the statistic of how few youths have obtained meaningful jobs. I am not surprised by how few kids will return to school – there is no money in going back to school. But the project is on-going. One of my hopes is that the project aims for the under-18 kids include more GEDs, and more employment, perhaps as entrepreneurs which is a skill they have demonstrated already. The second hope is that the program is expanded to reach out to the youth who really are in gangs. There are at least 1200 youth in gangs in Baltimore. When we help them, we reduce the homicide rate. So, it’s a worthy cause.

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  • Lauren K Foster Reply

    The squeegee kids are entrepreneurs. Drive by profit. They may not want to work for someone else, get up at a specific time, wear specific clothes, etc. It may be better to help them identify new business ventures that would sustain them in adulthood.

    September 22, 2023 at 2:25 pm

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