Guards to help mon­i­tor cor­ners

Down­town Part­ner­ship seeks less ten­sion with ‘squeegee kids,’ driv­ers

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Yvonne Wenger

Act­ing out of con­cern for mo­torists trav­el­ing through Bal­ti­more, the Down­town Part­ner­ship will be­gin plac­ing un­armed se­cu­rity guards at busy in­ter­sec­tions as early as next week to ease in­ter­ac­tions be­tween “squeegee kids” and driv­ers.

Kirby Fowler, the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s pres­i­dent, said work­ers and res­i­dents in the city’s busi­ness and cul­tural dis­trict are re­port­ing an in­crease in bad ex­pe­ri­ences with the squeegee kids, typ­i­cally boys and teens who for gen­er­a­tions have looked to wash wind­shields at Bal­ti­more in­ter­sec­tions for tips.

He said the wash­ers some­times threaten driv­ers, draw ob­scene im­ages on their wind­shields or hit ve­hi­cles with their squeegees, crack­ing glass and caus­ing other dam­age. He heard this week of one squirt­ing washer fluid in a driver’s mouth.

The part­ner­ship will spend roughly $3,000 a week on guards along Pres­i­dent and Con­way streets dur­ing the morn­ing and evening rush hours, Fowler said. The guards will not have ar­rest pow­ers but will mon­i­tor the young peo­ple and of­fer to con­nect them with ser­vices to meet their needs. The guards also will be there to pro­vide as­sis­tance to mo­torists who ask for help.

The short-term so­lu­tion, Fowler said, at­tempts to rec­og­nize both the com­plex fac­tors that drive the win­dow wash­ers to

the in­ter­sec­tions and the prob­lems they some­times create for mo­torists. The or­ga­ni­za­tion also is pre­par­ing to launch a mo­bile “text-to-give” app in the com­ing months that will al­low driv­ers to make dona­tions for home­less ser­vices and var­i­ous poverty in­ter­ven­tions.

“There are cer­tain peo­ple who view the squeegee ac­tiv­ity as an ex­ten­sion of poverty and distress in the city,” Fowler said. “Oth­ers see it as a nui­sance and don’t want to be both­ered. And to some ex­tent, both could be cor­rect.”

Fowler said the part­ner­ship does not have data to show whether there are more squeegee kids down­town, but his or­ga­ni­za­tion is hear­ing more com­plaints than ever.

Ear­lier this month, a squeegee kid al­legedly smashed a driver’s rear win­dow, ac­cord­ing to a post the driver made in a Fed­eral Hill Face­book group. The man, who did not want to be iden­ti­fied, said he re­fused a win­dow washer at the in­ter­sec­tion of Ham­burg and Rus­sell streets when the young man broke the glass. A po­lice spokesman said no ar­rests have been made in the case.

The po­lice did not pro­vide data to show whether squeegee ac­tiv­ity, ar­rests or crimes as­so­ci­ated with the win­dow wash­ers have in­creased.

Capt. Jef­frey Feather­stone of the Cen­tral Dis­trict said the depart­ment’s pri­mary fo­cus is on en­gage­ment ef­forts. He said of­fi­cers are de­ployed on foot to key in­ter­sec­tions where they try to create re­la­tion­ships with the young peo­ple and con­nect them to work in the city’s youth jobs pro­grams or talk to them about other op­por­tu­ni­ties. Ar­rest­ing the youth for block­ing traf­fic or re­lated of­fenses, or con­fis­cat­ing their squeegees and spray bot­tles, is a last re­sort, he said.

“These are chil­dren and our fo­cus is tak­ing a holis­tic ap­proach to im­prov­ing lives and im­prov­ing safety,” Feather­stone said. “At the end of the day we don’t want these young men on the street con­duct­ing this ac­tiv­ity. Our goal is to re­di­rect them into train­ing, get them what­ever they need, to not be in the street.”

Mayor Cather­ine Pugh said she is work­ing to create a jobs pro­gram specif­i­cally for the squeegee kids. Over the next sev­eral months, she hopes to raise $1.7 mil­lion from pri­vate sec­tor dona­tions to give about 100 squeegee kids part-time jobs. The mayor said she be­lieves that matches the num­ber of kids reg­u­larly wash­ing win­dows, based on sur­veys by her ad­min­is­tra­tion. Not all of the win­dow wash­ers are kids, Pugh said. Some are older teens or grown men with a va­ri­ety of needs. Some have dropped out of high school or are home­less.

Her mes­sage to them all is: “It’s against the law to im­pede traf­fic whether you’re a squeegee win­dow-washer, a beg­gar, sell­ing news­pa­pers,” Pugh said. “You have to be on the side­walk. You can’t re­tal­i­ate. No means no.”

Pugh de­nies the no­tion by the Down­town Part­ner­ship and oth­ers that there are now more peo­ple so­lic­it­ing driv­ers for money than in the past.

She said the jobs pro­gram will not be an ex­pan­sion of the Squeegee Corps she launched last year to get kids out of the in­ter­sec­tions and work­ing in “pop-up” car washes. She is us­ing lessons she learned from that en­deavor to create a bet­ter so­lu­tion that in­cludes reach­ing out to the young peo­ple and ask­ing what they need in place of wash­ing win­dows for tips.

“Are there ways to in­vest in young peo­ple? Are they in­ter­ested in a lawn care busi­ness or help­ing to clean up va­cant lots?” Pugh said. “You need to have some­thing for them to do one day and the next day.

“The chil­dren are worth find­ing real so­lu­tions to the prob­lems.”

A 15-year-old high school sopho­more from Pig­town said in the two years he has worked as a squeegee boy, he has had his feet run over, peo­ple dis­play guns to him and some threaten to fight him. He said he washes win­dows to bring in money for his fam­ily, in­clud­ing his mother and three younger sis­ters. He buys cloth­ing for the girls and can af­ford to buy some of the house­hold items his mom asks for help with, such as food and toi­let pa­per.

Plus, the boy said, work­ing as a squeegee kid helps keep some youth out of trou­ble, es­pe­cially those who are too young to be hired in a tra­di­tional job.

“You’ve got them young kids who are al­ways bad around your neigh­bor­hood, if you put them out here, they ain’t got noth­ing to be bad about,” the boy said at the in­ter­sec­tion of Wash­ing­ton and Martin Luther King Jr. boule­vards. “We’re not harm­ing y’all. We’re try­ing to make a liv­ing, just like y’all try­ing to make a liv­ing.”

Va­lerie Costello, a 33-year-old of­fice co­or­di­na­tor, said she en­coun­ters squeegee kids on her drive through the city each day from her Dun­dalk home to her job in Mount Wash­ing­ton.

“If the kids were more re­spect­ful, it wouldn’t be a big deal,” said Costello, who has seen the kids kick cars and “get mouthy when you tell them no.”

And they’re not only look­ing for tips, Costello said. Many look in­side her car and ask for items they see in­side. She wor­ries that they could be work­ing in teams to dis­tract her and reach in­side to take her purse or an­other valu­able item.

“I don’t mind the hus­tle of try­ing to get a few ex­tra dol­lars,” Costello said, but if you tell them no, they should ac­cept that.

Jackie Old­ham, 64, re­cently wrote a poem about squeegee kids. The North­east Bal­ti­more woman is a writer known as “Bal­ti­more Black Woman” who works to pro­mote di­a­logues on race and city life that pro­mote a deeper un­der­stand­ing among peo­ple.

She said she has “very mixed feel­ings” about the young win­dow wash­ers. She too wants them to re­spect driv­ers when they de­cline their ser­vices.

Old­ham hopes city lead­ers can help the young men build on their en­tre­pre­neur­ial spirit and de­sire to earn money le­gally. Per­haps if the kids held signs telling driv­ers what they were try­ing to earn money for, there would be less ten­sion at the in­ter­sec­tions, she said.

“When you look at what they go through in their quest to make money, the frus­tra­tions could fall away,” Old­ham said. “It might cur­tail some of the anger.”

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