After a deadly confrontation between a group of squeegee workers and a baseball bat-wielding driver earlier this month reignited a longstanding political debate about poverty, structural racism and public safety in Baltimore, officials expressed widespread agreement that addressing the root causes of panhandling is a monumental task — one the city needs to prioritize.
Many of the young people who wash windshields for money at busy downtown intersections are there out of necessity. Before they can transition to gainful employment, their basic needs must be met, officials said Wednesday during a hearing before the City Council’s Public Safety and Government Operations Committee.
Those could include housing, food, transportation, counseling and more. Maybe they need identification, appropriate work clothes and interview prep. Some are still much too young to join the workforce.
“We need an army of resources to help our children,” said Andrey Bundley, director of the Mayor’s Office of African American Male Engagement. “Will we build that? Will all of Baltimore step up? That’s my question.”
Davion Hodges, 22, said he picked up a squeegee years ago, one of many ways he hustled to earn money and help support himself after losing his mom as a teenager. Even before that, he and his sisters sold candy and snacks out of their home — “anything to make a dollar.”
Now, Hodges works at the Revival Hotel through a city employment program for squeegee workers. He spoke at the hearing Wednesday in hopes of setting an example for other young people currently hustling to make ends meet. He said if the goal is getting young people off the corners, a blanket approach won’t work because “nobody’s story is the same.”
“We want to be looked at as more than just a number, just one of the squeegee kids,” said Lance White, 20, another former squeegee worker who started at Revival last week. “Everybody’s race through life is different.”
During the hearing, which lasted about three hours, officials acknowledged entrenched social issues and grasped at solutions.
Councilman Mark Conway, chair of the Public Safety and Government Operations Committee, said directing police officers to clear corners of squeegee workers might temporarily stop the practice but would fail to address the root causes.
“There is no silver bullet,” said Deputy Mayor Faith Leach, who oversees outreach efforts and other programs aimed at helping squeegee workers. She said now is the time to think big and do more.
Outreach workers are currently focusing on 25 high-traffic intersections, engaging with squeegee workers on a daily basis, officials said. They have a list of 117 squeegee workers who have agreed to engage with services. Leach said the goal is to continue growing that list.
“We have an opportunity to serve as a national model for how to treat Black boys,” she said. “They are not a problem to be solved; they are the sons of Baltimore and they deserve our very best.”
Councilman Zeke Cohen asked about exploring a universal basic income program for squeegee workers and their families. The city launched a similar pilot program for young parents earlier this year. He said the model could be integral to meeting the basic needs of vulnerable youth.
The hearing came amid amplified debate surrounding what officials are calling the “squeegee issue” after the July 7 deadly confrontation. Timothy Reynolds, 48, approached a group of squeegee workers swinging a baseball bat at the intersection of Light and Conway streets. He died from gunshot wounds after one of the youths opened fire in response.
Baltimore police later arrested a suspect, who turned 15 the day after the shooting. He has been charged with first-degree murder, though his attorneys have argued he shot in self-defense and should face a lesser charge.
Most squeegee workers are teens and young men from impoverished neighborhoods. Many need the immediate cash, a benefit not usually offered through job training programs and traditional employment.
But some business and political leaders consider them a nuisance at best and a public safety threat at worst. Accusations of violence, property destruction and harassment, sometimes substantiated, are regularly used as evidence the city should do more.
Complaints have surfaced recently about some squeegee workers scamming drivers out of money and displaying menacing behavior, though it remains unclear whether such incidents have actually increased in frequency.
Just hours before the July 7 shooting, Baltimore police responded to the same intersection and confiscated an unloaded BB gun from a squeegee worker after reports that he had threatened someone with a weapon, according to police. Outreach workers with the city later contacted the group of kids in hopes of connecting them with services and potential employment opportunities.
On July 18, officers arrested a 12-year-old after reports that a squeegee worker fired a BB gun at two people walking near the intersection of East Fayette and President streets near Baltimore Police Headquarters downtown. Medics treated the two people for abrasions to the arms and torso, according to police. They told officers a squeegee worker in the area had taunted them, then pulled out a gun and fired it. The weapon was later identified as a BB gun, police said.
Other people have complained about payment app scams where squeegee workers ask for payment through Cash App or Zelle, two digital money transfer programs. In some cases, squeegee workers will get people to hand over their phone and then use an app to transfer themselves large sums of money. Baltimore Police said the department had recorded 18 such cases as of July 1, but updated data wasn’t immediately available.
That’s what happened to Michele Owens, who recently took a casual drive through downtown Baltimore while visiting relatives in the area and ended up losing $2,000.
When some squeegee workers came up to her car at the intersection of President and Lombard streets, Owens apologized that she didn’t have cash. But one of the young men told her they could accept Cash App or Zelle instead. She tried to take a picture of his Cash App information so she could download the app later, but one thing led to another — she ended up sitting at the intersection through multiple light cycles — and eventually he took her phone to facilitate the transaction. He kept reassuring her that everything was OK, Owens said, but she felt trapped and increasingly uneasy.
“My hand was shaking,” she said. “I was thinking in the back of my mind that these guys could be armed.”
She was relieved to finally get her phone back and drive away. When she later pulled over to check her bank account, she found a Zelle transfer of $2,000 and called her bank immediately to report a fraudulent transaction. She also reported the theft to Baltimore police. She found out Wednesday evening that the funds had been reimbursed.
In a Tweet earlier this week, Mayor Brandon Scott advised Baltimore residents to be aware of such scams. “Do not give your phone to anyone you do not know!” the tweet said. Scott also asked people who have experienced theft to contact police.
At the hearing Wednesday, officials also advised people to implement two-factor authentication for payment apps or use facial recognition technology when possible. “We know this is very much a preventable issue,” Leach said.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said officers have been instructed to monitor intersections where squeegee workers frequently congregate, hoping an increased police presence will deter crime. Officers are also focused on confiscating weapons, making arrests for damage to vehicles when it occurs and investigating reports of theft, Harrison said.
Department spokeswoman Lindsey Eldridge said officials are working to compile comprehensive data on incidents involving squeegee workers since their record-keeping system doesn’t include that classification.
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