By Jordan Nowaskey, Alexis Terry and Anna Clary
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writers
Growing tensions between “squeegee kids” and motorists driving on Baltimore streets have forced local businesses to assign unarmed security guards to supervise heavily traveled areas.
“Squeegee kids” is the nickname for youth, some as young as elementary-school age, who carry bottles of cleaning solution and squeegees around to clean car windows when motorists stop at busy intersections, stop signs or traffic-lights.
Often the youth perform their services with or without the approval of the drivers who then feel compelled to tip. Those drivers who refuse the service or are unwilling to tip sometimes are harassed, threatened or worse, officials said.
The idea of stationing unarmed guards or “street monitors” at popular spots came during a series of discussions over the past few months among the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, other city youth groups and Mayor Catherine Pugh.
“We think that if it helps protect kids, visitors and drivers, we don’t see any problems with that,” James E. Bentley II, the mayor’s press secretary, said about the effort to hire guards.
The Downtown Partnership of Baltimore earlier announced plans to spend $3,000 a week to hire security guards. However, partnership officials did not return phone calls or email messages to confirm the amount or the hiring effort.
Bentley stressed that Mayor Pugh has given the task of working with the Squeegee Kids to a newly recreated Office of African American Male Engagement. Earlier this year, Pugh announced plans to raise $2 million in two years to find solutions that get youth off the streets and into productive jobs and internships.
“The goal is to get them off the streets and into jobs,” Bentley told The Baltimore Watchdog. “We want sustainable solutions to get them off the corners. What drives kids to go out there? Most are trying to make money. So, the solutions are to provide income, internships and work programs.”
The Mayor’s Office had at one time hired youth to clean vacant lots, so they could earn “one day’s pay for one day’s work,” said Bentley. City youth also managed car washes.
Squeegee kids have been operating in Baltimore for generations now, but motorists’ complaints are pouring in about broken or banged on windows and damaged vehicles. The youth sometimes curse at or threaten drivers or retaliate in other harmful ways.
As city officials debate and collaborate, squeegee kids continue to work.
“Some people take it overboard,” acknowledged Matt, a 20-year-old squeegee boy working on President Street on a recent fall day. “…they bust people’s windows and stuff; they feel like they need a tip; they feel like they need to be paid for what they’re doing, but that’s not us.”
Matt and “D,” an 18-year-old who frequently covers Lombard Street, distanced themselves from the more aggressive workers.
“There’s different types,” said D, of the groups of squeegee boys.
Matt agreed: “You’d be surprised [at] the different squeegee boys that come out here. We’re not all the same; we don’t know most of the other kids.”
“D” explained that only six boys consist of the group he manages with Matt. He said that in some areas, groups are larger – three to four times the size of his group. The larger groups can intimidate motorists or appear more aggressive, often giving residents the wrong impression of the boys merely trying to make an “honest dollar.”
Stephanie Hasseni, 24, who lives in Baltimore’s Federal Hill neighborhood, said she supports the “squeegee kids,” although she sometimes is bothered by their behavior.
“I don’t mind the boys cleaning my windows,” she said. “It’s just when they yell at you or pound at others’ windows, that it gets a little intimidating or scary at times; because you don’t know how far that person is willing to go for a dollar they believe they’re owed, for a service they did without asking.”
Jamil Owens, a security guard stationed at 100 E. Pratt St., stands at the corner of East Lombard and Light streets every day. He admitted his corner is popular for the “squeegee kids” and insisted that those who work daily are typically calm compared with youth who work on other blocks.
“One bad squeegee kid makes them all bad squeegee kids,” said Owens, who enthusiastically accepts his job but hopes it is temporary.
Owens said that many traffic and security guards roam throughout the Inner Harbor area where tourists are scattered about. He said few unarmed guards are visible on neighborhood streets.
The idea behind having guards at the corners is to provide an authority presence to reduce or alleviate unlawful behavior. By not wearing police gear or carrying weapons, supporters of the effort said the monitors can become advocates for the youth.
D and Matt’s group work the street corners three to four times a week for four to five hours a day, with earnings ranging from $125 to $150 during that time period. They insisted that cleaning car windows is a lucrative way to supplement paychecks and help their families financially.
“The money is just so good,” said D. “Everybody’s got bills to pay, but I can’t take time off work, so I just skip my last two classes if I need the money and it’s good weather out to squeegee.”
Evan Mascaro, a frequent city driver, said motorists’ experiences with the boys differ.
“Last night, around 10 p.m., I was at a stop light in the city where at least six older squeegee boys surrounded my car and washed all of my windows without me saying to do so,” said Mascaro. “I didn’t have any cash on me, and they were cool with it, but I can only imagine a group like that surrounding someone’s car at night, when they aren’t in the best mood, and aren’t feeling so forgiving of the situation.”
While most “squeegee boys” appreciate a dollar for their work, many said they will do their service whether they get paid or not, and without resorting to aggression.
Matt stressed that his main motivation is more about giving back to the city and its people.
“A lot of times you aren’t going to see me out here,” Matt said. “I used to be out here a lot, but I’m older so I don’t have to be out here. It’s not something we have to do. Sometimes it’s not about the money. I’ll draw hearts on people’s windows. I do it to show that I care, and to support my city.”
Matt and D said they believe the street monitors could be beneficial in certain areas, particularly in Baltimore City. Monitoring may not be as necessary in the county, said D.
“I do think it’s good that they [are] out here,” said Matt. “We’re not always gonna be out here so the next people that come up on this block better make a better name for themselves, because right now, they’re ruining it for everybody.”
Owens joins those who want the monitors to be a short-term solution that strengthens the relationship between “squeegee kids” and Baltimore drivers. He stressed the need for a more positive solution.
“I think we should add more programs for the kids,” said Owens. “And they should have the most say in what should happen.”