Baltimore launches plan to get squeegee workers off corners

BALTIMORE (AP) — Tyemaur Scott started 2023 with an important New Year’s resolution. He vowed to leave the ranks of Baltimore’s squeegee workers, whose intractable presence at busy downtown intersections remains a source of heated public debate.

A deadly confrontation last summer — when a teen windshield washer shot an irate, baseball bat-wielding driver near the Inner Harbor during evening rush hour — galvanized disparate opinions about the practice. And on Tuesday, police could start issuing panhandling citations in six zones where squeegee work is most common. The planned enforcement action marks a major turning point in the city’s approach to squeegeeing.

To some city residents and officials, the young men who wash windshields for cash are hard-working entrepreneurs trying to survive under difficult circumstances. They represent a host of systemic problems facing Black Baltimoreans, including deep-seated poverty, racism and long-term disinvestment in communities of color. But other downtown drivers consider them to be a nuisance and public safety hazard.

While city leaders pledged to finally address the root causes of squeegeeing, members of the public expressed skepticism about whether this latest effort will provide anything more than a Band-Aid solution.

Past initiatives have come and gone with little impact. Baltimore City Council outlawed the practice in the 1980s, with white council members passing the ban and Black members opposing it. The city opened “squeegee stations,” where youths with approved badges could work after receiving safety and etiquette instructions. But the idea never caught on.

In November, a collaborative of local officials, business leaders, squeegee workers and other stakeholders presenteda plan to combine limited law enforcement action with robust outreach efforts aimed at connecting economically disadvantaged youths with long-term jobs and other resources, including mentors, workforce training programs and housing support.

Officials said Baltimore police would start enforcing anti-panhandling laws Tuesday in six enforcement areas across the city, including where the shooting happened. Previous efforts to get squeegee workers off corners stopped short of police involvement, unlike cities such as New York, where frequent arrests made windshield washers virtually extinct.

Some workers said they were already rethinking squeegeeing after experiencing increased stigma and decreased profits in recent months. For those reasons, along with his mother’s longtime disapproval and his own ambitions, Scott said he decided to turn a new leaf.

“It’s like I was standing still when I could’ve been accomplishing so much more,” he said.

Scott, 22, said he started squeegeeing around the time he dropped out of high school, because he needed money to support himself. He said he recently was earning between $40 and 200 per day.

He attended a career readiness fair Friday afternoon hosted by the Baltimore mayor’s office.

Many squeegee workers grow up in poor, majority-Black communities and use their earnings to pay for food, housing, clothes and family support. Squeegeeing allows them to find work that doesn’t involve the drugs or gang violence plaguing many Baltimore neighborhoods.

“I never wanted to jeopardize my freedom,” Scott said. He hopes to earn his GED and become a firefighter someday, but his first priority for the immediate future is getting a steady income.

He said squeegeeing has taught him to develop a unique brand of customer service. His number one rule: When in doubt, just walk away — because “two wrongs don’t make a right.”

With an infectious smile and unassuming demeanor, Scott bemoaned the small group of “knuckleheads” who give Baltimore squeegee workers a bad name.

Some drivers have reported getting scammed after handing over their cellphones to make payments through money transfer apps. Others have complained about squeegee workers darting in and out of traffic at dangerous intersections.

In response to the Inner Harbor shooting, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan reiterated claims that some people were afraid to come into downtown Baltimore because of squeegee workers. He blamed city leadership for failing to end the practice.

Scott was skeptical about the new plan to ban squeegeeing in certain areas. But ideally, he said, the threat of law enforcement action would motivate his peers to seek other opportunities. City officials didn’t respond to questions Monday about whether they plan to add more enforcement zones in the future.

Officials have already partnered with several local businesses and agencies offering employment as well as workforce training to former squeegee workers.

Jason Bass, director of culture and impact at the Revival Hotel in Baltimore, which currently employs three former squeegee workers, said he hopes to see that number increase. At the career readiness fair on Friday, he shared advice about entrepreneurship.

“These kids know how to work through hard times,” he said. “Nobody’s gonna give it to them. They’ve gotta go out and earn it.”

When it comes to formal employment, many squeegee workers have to overcome multiple barriers before joining the workforce. Some are too young. Others lack proper identification, stable housing, reliable transportation and work clothes. Officials have repeatedly stressed the importance of meeting those underlying needs on an individual basis.

“There is no silver bullet,” Baltimore Deputy Mayor Faith Leach said during a public hearing in the aftermath of the shooting. “We have an opportunity to serve as a national model for how to treat Black boys. They are not a problem to be solved; they are the sons of Baltimore and they deserve our very best.”

Derwin Catchings, another longtime squeegee worker, said he keeps coming back to squeegeeing because the payout is immediate. The money has allowed him to help with family expenses over the past several years.

“It’s a hustle,” said Catchings, 23. “I make money every day.”

But now his girlfriend is pregnant, they recently moved in together and he’s looking for more stable employment. He’s optimistic about the next chapter.

Perhaps most importantly, he said, squeegeeing has taught him perseverance — how to accept rejection and keep moving. Countless drivers might refuse his services, but there’s always another windshield, another red light, another dollar.

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