When 17-year-old Jaylen Brown found himself in need of extra cash last summer, he did what many of his classmates had begun doing years ago. He stuck a tree branch into a sponge and started to squeegee.
Now a seasoned window-washer, Brown has traded in the contraption for a Mallory — a sturdy-handled squeegee with a thick, spongey top. In between school and his 6 p.m. shift at Burger King, Brown will walk the median of President Street in Baltimore with his cousin Tony Jackson. If they get a nod from a driver, the teens will give the windshield a quick scrub and pocket whatever bills get dangled out the window.
“We catch hundos, 20s, 50s sometimes, fives, and dollars,” says Jackson. On a good day, the cousins each head home $200 richer.
Most squeegeeing qualifies as aggressive panhandling, which is illegal in Baltimore. But the city ordinance prohibiting panhandling has done little to dissuade the teenagers. One police officer estimates squeegeeing has been a part of the city “as long as murder has.” Local historian Matthew Hood traces the enterprise back to the mid-1980s.
Three decades later, many of the city’s residents have had enough of the kids crowding the intersections. This year, motorists have spoken out on local broadcasts, alleging harassment at the hands of squeegeers. Mayor Catherine E. Pugh released a video in which she rebukes a young window-washer for skipping school. A 10-year-old boy almost died after getting struck by a car while squeegeeing this October.
The events have catalyzed a debate — flushed out on in the local press, on Twitter and inside City Hall — over how to get the kids off the corners. Now months into the dispute, the city remains divided on how to get it done.
The mayor’s office estimates Baltimore is home to about a hundred kids, who flock to bustling intersections in pursuit of spare change. In a recent Baltimore Sun op-ed, Pugh laid out her plan to entice these “100 young people to permanently leave street corners” through a job training program. The program, she wrote, would provide kids with skills more palatable to the city’s commuters — landscaping, site clearing, financial literacy — along with a stipend.
Local organizations are attempting squeegee-clearing methods of their own. Two weeks ago, the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore deployed monitors to oversee the interactions between squeegeers and drivers on well-trafficked streets. Michael Evitts, a spokesperson for the group, wrote in an e-mail that the guards are intended “to be welcoming and provide a reassuring sense of safety.” They are not, he wrote, meant to act “as a kind of mall cop.”
State delegate Nick Mosby says these monitors are just the latest incarnation of the city’s squeegee crackdown.
“Within the past six to ten months, there’s been a complete uptick in different mechanisms of enforcement to try to discourage them from squeegeeing,” he says.
Mosby calls the enforcement “disgustingly short-sighted,” as it fails to address the deeper issues of poverty and inequality that drive teens like Jackson and Brown onto the median to begin with.
“They just don’t like the idea of strange, predominantly African-American young men coming up to their cars asking ‘can they provide a service’ at a red light,” he says.
David Plymyer, a retired county attorney for nearby Anne Arundel, used to be a social worker in Maryland. He knows most of the kids washing windows likely live in chronic poverty. But he says he’s tired of getting solicited for a squeegee each time he drives downtown.
“You’re essentially trapped inside that vehicle waiting for whatever is to occur next,” he says, equating the experience to “low intensity extortion.” He called on city officials to “simply enforce [the law] and get them out of the intersection.”
But teens like Jackson and Brown seem undeterred by the enforcement they’ve seen. Jackson says, illegal or not, squeegeeing remains his best option for quick cash.
“We even asked a couple officers ‘Would y’all rather us sell drugs or squeegee?’ They don’t ever answer our question.”
When Brian Loiero, a Baltimore Police Department officer, pulls up to their median in late October and informs the teens “it’s illegal to stand in the middle of the street and do the squeegee thing,” they nod. When Loiero leaves, they make a plan to return in a few hours.
The cousins say they intend to stay squeegeeing until they can save up enough to move out of their childhood homes downtown.
A few blocks up President Street, nine-year-old Tavon Parker says he plans to squeegee alongside his older brother until he can wrangle up enough to “get something to eat and buy toys.”
His mother, Tracy Scott, watches from the corner. It’s the same intersection where — one week later — a boy would be hit by a car while squeegeeing. For now, though, Scott says she’s glad her two sons choose to spend their evenings this way.
“It keeps them out of trouble,” she says. “A lot. A lot of trouble.”