Baltimore city officials on Wednesday shed new light on their efforts to support as many as 160 youth who squeegee and get them away from dangerous, high-traffic intersections, emphasizing that they don’t plan to arrest their way out of the problem but rather take a holistic approach.
The youth who squeegee are typically stationed at roughly 25 intersections, Deputy Mayor Faith Leach told City Council members, and dozens of volunteers are out on behalf of the city every day engaging with and learning more about the young people of Baltimore who take to the streets to earn money.
“There’s isn’t a clock in or clock out when you’re supporting the young people in our city,” Leach said during a Public Safety and Government Operations Committee hearing designed to detail the city’s response to the “squeegee issue,” which has proven divisive for decades. The hearing comes less than a month after a 48-year-old Hampden resident was shot and killed after confronting squeegee workers with a baseball bat at a downtown intersection — reigniting decades-old debates about how to get Baltimore’s youth off the streets and into stable jobs.
Some view Baltimore’s window washers as nuisances who are endangering themselves and motorists. Others say they’re simply doing anything they can to help make ends meet for their families.
On the legal side, Deputy Solicitor Ebony Thompson said Wednesday the city’s law department was of the opinion that soliciting and panhandling, which includes squeegeeing, was a “First Amendment protected activity.” There is a city code banning squeegee work that has been in place for decades, but recent Supreme Court precedent has thrown it into question.
“What that means is that any limitations on that activity is going to be subject to conditions,” Thompson said. “Any enforcement strategy that we implement for the city, it has to strike a balance between legitimate government interest and public safety and the constitutional rights of the workers.”
The Baltimore Police Department, meanwhile, illustrated the extent of the criminal element it has so far identified at some squeegee work intersections. A spokesperson for the department said that police have identified 18 instances of thefts arising out of squeegee work between March and July 1 involving mobile payment apps, such as Cash App, Zelle and Apple Pay. The vast majority of them occurred downtown. Of those cases, six so far have resulted in the theft victims getting their funds back, the spokesperson said.
To that end, city officials said they are working with Block, the company that owns Cash App, to more easily reverse payments and establish standing policies on how to deal with the thefts.
Joseph Jones, CEO of the Center for Urban Families, is the co-chair of a collaboration of business and philanthropic groups now meeting weekly and working with the city to develop solutions.
Jones said after the hearing that the thefts that take place are the exception, not the rule, and most squeegee workers never commit criminal acts. The police department’s data backs that up. But Jones said even one person being taken advantage of should frustrate everyone.
“That’s not something we should accept or normalize,” Jones said. “We need to address it, but we also need to be thoughtful, to have people understand, how do you keep yourself from lapsing into a certain set of circumstances where you let your guard down?”
Mayor Brandon Scott and the Police Department both issued guidance to motorists on their social media pages on Tuesday, advising motorists to lock payment apps on their phone and not give their devices to strangers.
City Council members asked questions of various department heads, requesting information from budgetary needs to why the city’s housing department was not involved.
Leach also responded favorably to a suggestion by Councilman Zeke Cohen that a proposal to get squeegee workers off the streets would offer “a great test case” for a universal basic income program, in which workers would receive direct payments from the city to encourage them to stop washing car windows at intersections. The deputy mayor noted possible challenges in administering direct cash payments to squeegee workers under 18 years old. The city already has a model of an ongoing guaranteed income program launching with federal pandemic aid.
“I actually think the question of UBI is an interesting one,” said Leach, who added that she “love[s] the idea of UBI.”
Jones, who has held two meetings with the collective so far, said those questions are still premature. The task force, he said, is still trying to understand the scope of the problem so it can offer better ideas for potential solutions.
“The young people who squeegee are part of the collaborative, their voices just as important as anybody else’s voice,” Jones said. “We also want to learn, are there nuanced differences between kids who populate on President Street versus kids who populate on [North Avenue and Mt. Royal Avenue]?”
Other city efforts to connect with squeegee workers in the last three years have not all fallen flat. Davion Hodges, 22, who testified at the hearing, said his mother had just passed away when he started squeegeeing to make money, but he didn’t view himself as a “squeegee worker.”
“I would just say a hustler, really,” Hodges told reporters after the hearing. “Because I was always doing anything to make a dollar, basically.”
For Hodges, that hustle began at eight years old, when he sold candy and even drawings of stick figures to earn money to help out his family. He said that sending other young people to connect with the squeegee workers was the right approach. The youth at the corners, he said, could need a variety of help, from housing, to obtaining identification, to getting decent clothes.
“If I see somebody my age, doing way better than me, I’m going to look up to him,” Hodges said. “I’m going to want to know what he was doing and when he was doing so I can get there.”
Now, Hodges works at the Hotel Revival in Mount Vernon as a bell attendant. Lance White, 20, who was also redirected from squeegeeing to a mentorship program, works there too, doing housekeeping.
“Before I started this, I just wanted to get money,” White said. “Now I look at it is, you want to leave something behind. You want to give something that’s bigger than you.”
White said his ultimate career goal is to obtain a commercial driver’s license and work in real estate. Hodges, currently in welding school, said he wanted to work in real estate, too, and eventually start a painting company and name it after his late mom, who was a professional painter.
While most community members who spoke at the meeting were supportive of squeegee work, a few called in with complaints and concerns about the city’s approach to the enterprise. One caller described her experiences with squeegee workers as “mostly negative,” saying workers have called her names and hit the sides of her car in the intersections. Another said he recognized the difficult circumstances of many squeegee workers, but felt it was the drivers who were suffering from the dynamic.
In addition to the handful of squeegee workers who attended the hearing, numerous Baltimore residents weighed in with their own thoughts. Among them was community activist Kim Trueheart, who previously ran a support program for squeegee youth and who expressed her hope that the city would look for ways to license and regulate squeegee work as legitimate business.
“You can say that there’s a law not to be in the intersections. Yeah, I get that,” said Trueheart. “But these kids are trying to make a living.”
Andrey Bundley, director of the Mayor’s Office of African American Male Engagement, said that when his office asks young squeegee workers what they need, their answers are often the same. “I need to get back in school. I need to eat. I’m hungry,” he recounted. City workers with Bundley’s team have noted the importance of fast, immediate payments that draw young people to squeegee work — “one day’s work for one day’s pay” — and Bundley appealed to the council to put resources towards the youth workers in the same way it funds food insecurity and housing.
“Will Baltimore step up? That’s my question,” he said.