Encouraging Safety and Responsibility for Baltimore’s Squeegee Kids

For any longtime resident of Baltimore or an out of town visitor, a common and well-known fixture of the city is the squeegee kid. Squeegee kids are teenagers and young adults who dart into traffic at intersections or gas stations and quickly clean car windows. Many of these children are attempting to make money during school and summer breaks while others use the activity as a source of income to supplement family expenses.

The squeegee kids issue is not new for Baltimore, which has struggled for more than thirty years for an appropriate public response. Squeegee kids have existed in the city as far back as the 1960s. Public and municipal authorities have attempted to regulate their presence and activity since the 1980s. Then, like now, the concerns revolved around public safety, motorist complaints, and whether to view them as innovative entrepreneurs or as panhandlers who were products of the city’s growing deindustrialization and rising unemployment.

Baltimore’s first law addressing these kids dates to 1985. The “Squeegee Bill,” passed at the height of the War on Drugs, found a middle ground between criminalization and entrepreneurship. It eliminated criminal penalties and fines for squeegee kids who were minors and set up “squeegee stations” at which young people could engage in the practice without recrimination, according to The New York Times.

Since 1985, squeegee kids have continued to receive a mixed reception in the city. Some view them as nascent entrepreneurs, adeptly choosing to create economic opportunity through tenacity and hard work. Others see them as a menace and even as criminals.

In August, prominent business leaders complained about the presence of the squeegee kids at downtown intersections in a letter to Baltimore’s mayor. According to the The Baltimore Sun, the city’s current Mayor Jack Young has proposed a contemporary plan to reconcile these two competing notions of the squeegee kid. The first step of his plan was talking with the squeegee kids and taking their concerns into consideration. Based on these conversations, Young’s office devised a plan to address the concerns of the community that balances the need to keep the squeegee kids out of harm’s way. The threat is not only passing cars — one squeegee kid reported having a gun pointed at him.

The Mayor’s Office of Children and Family Success (MOFCS) drafted the “Squeegee Alternative Plan” and released it on September 16. It is the result of a 2-month consultation with a number of stakeholders including the squeegee kids, youth advocates, business owners, and education and human service professionals. Rather than criminalizing and stigmatizing the activity, the plan takes a different tack. It seeks to provide critical support for squeegee kids, divided across a range of critical needs areas designed to promote Safety and Wellbeing, Support Systems, Barrier Removal, Education, and Work.

To ensure Safety and Wellbeing, the plan addresses the rising number of complaints against squeegee kids while also reducing the confrontations between the kids and commuters. As an immediate step, bike patrol officers will be deployed to the areas with the greatest number of complaints to ensure the safety of everyone involved.

In the long term, the plan establishes a new 311 number that allows commuters to call for assistance and lodge complaints. This service will then deploy outreach program staff to work with young people in the area and educate them about alternatives to squeegee work. These workers will also assist youth reach a clearer understanding of acceptable and unacceptable conduct related to commuter interaction.

To further promote safety, new high resolution cameras will be installed at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Washington Boulevard, the President/Pratt Center Median, and the President/Lombard Center Median.

Another important feature in the plan is under the heading “Barrier Removal,” which supports squeegee kids’ search for gainful employment For instance, the plan helps youth access the records and paperwork they will need to get a job: birth certificates, social security cards, and a Maryland State ID. A MOCFS Youth Support Services Manager and Program Specialist will spearhead this effort.

Education and Work are also essential components of Mayor Young’s plan. Because a number of squeegee kids are either not attending school or do not have a high school diploma or GED, it is necessary to connect them to educational services. The Connect-2-Success Personal Growth Plan seeks to accomplish this by requiring youth participation in school programming. The plan refers the youth to the Baltimore City School system, reviews their current educational status, and ensures their placement in programs to achieve educational outcomes. Additional services will enhance existing programs to promote family preservation.

The last component of the program involves addressing the limited educational, socioeconomic, and work history of squeegee youth. According to the plan, MOFCS is tasked with providing ongoing financial compensation to youth. This will continue as youth phase into and out of transitional work programs such as the Earn-as-You-Grow Program, an initiative for young entrepreneurs to grow their businesses. These workforce development programs will help youth be more eligible for permanent job opportunities.

The Squeegee Alternative Plan will cost the City of Baltimore at least $1.2 million. The city has also hired two full time staffers tasked with pulling kids from intersections and enrolling them in the Connect 2 Success Program. The cost for these two officers was $120,000, according to the WJZ.

Baltimore City has a long history of resilient and innovative entrepreneurs. The squeegee kids are the latest example of this spirit.

Cities like Baltimore, which have experienced deindustrialization, crumbling infrastructure, and spiraling crime rates, also present opportunities to build on established traditions by adapting them to new realities. What is needed is not only Mayor Young’s Squeegee Alternative Plan, but also the cooperation of the private sector, especially businesses and nonprofits, to foster a viable economic enterprise. The goal is to make squeegeeing safe for the squeegee kids who perform the labor and the motorists who consume it while balancing the needs of the city government and the business community seeking to improve the city’s public and economic faces.

About the Author

Stephen G. Hall is a sections editor for The North Star. He is a historian specializing in 19th and 20th century African American and American intellectual, social and cultural history and the African Diaspora. Hall is the author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America and is working on a new book exploring the scholarly production of Black historians on the African Diaspora from 1885 to 1960.