A clock starts ticking when the light turns red at Baltimore intersections. Young men huddled on the sidewalk jump into the street, a squeegee in one hand, a bottle of glass cleaner in the other.
Nathaniel Silas’ goal is to make a dollar during every red light by cleaning windshields. Most drivers will give only a handful of change, if anything. Silas knows he has 24 seconds during each light. He keeps count in his head.
Silas is among about 100 squeegee kids — ages 14 to 21, mostly black and from low-income neighborhoods — regularly working intersections in neighborhoods across Baltimore, city officials estimate. For some, it’s a primary source of money; for others, a side hustle. They say it helps pay for groceries, rent and clothes. But many drivers call the squeegee kids a nuisance in a city with a complicated history of race relations and violence, and officials have tried for years to steer the workers to alternative jobs and have now launched a program to mentor them.
Silas, 19, scans motorists’ faces, watches for hand gestures. He passes cars with drivers mouthing “no” or shooing him away. Some turn on their wipers as a signal to stay away. But he also finds smiley drivers, and, after three years, he has regulars. He approaches one who gives a quick look of permission, and he stretches over the windshield. He jokes about accepting credit cards and Venmo.
He takes the change from the outstretched hand. The first windshield took 13 seconds. Other squeegee kids try to work at half that pace.
Silas and others know the work is illegal. Data analyzed by The Associated Press show that more than 3,100 complaints were logged about squeegee kids in 2019, the first year Baltimore used a specific designation for reports involving those cleaning windshields.
The City Council outlawed the practice in the 1980s, with white council members passing the ban and black ones 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.
Baltimore officials have stopped short of arrests, a practice that made windshield washers virtually extinct in New York. Baltimore officers ask squeegee kids to leave the corner but don’t force them away. One was arrested in February after refusing to get off the street and fighting and biting an officer, according to a police report.
Squeegee kids - most of whom don’t want to share their name or other details because of the illegal nature of the work and the stigma attached to it - say the complaints don’t deter them.
Even so, the debate over the unsolicited window cleaning has reached a crescendo. Last year, the white CEO of Baltimore-based global investment firm T. Rowe Price requested a meeting with city officials to address the “adverse effects of the squeegee presence.” William Stromberg wrote that the “frustrations” created by the kids “negatively impact the quality of life” of his employees and city residents. Soon after, the city announced plans to help the squeegee kids with mentorship and workforce training programs.
But Silas, sitting on the sidewalk taking a break, isn’t sure he’s interested in the city’s “Squeegee Alternative Plan.” About 80 squeegee kids have connected with the incentive-based program in some way, said Tisha Edwards, head of the Mayor’s Office of Children and Family Success. Mentors have daily contact with the most active kids, encouraging them to return to school, helping them get the IDs they need for formal employment, and guiding them to workforce readiness training and permanent jobs. Organizers say about 25 kids have returned to school, and 15 now have conventional jobs.
“These are young people who’ve had a long history of not being successful in school, and they do what they know how to do, which is if the family is hungry or if the water bill needs to be paid or rent needs to be paid, they go back to the corner,” Edwards said. “We want young people to know there are opportunities available to them and they don’t have to make those hard choices of ‘If I go to school, how am I going to eat?’”
Silas has different career goals. He says he has considered saving some of his squeegee money to buy a van for a mobile car wash. Longer term, he hopes to work in real estate or own a car dealership.
Squeegee work can be dangerous, and he knows he can’t do it forever. But it’s good money - he can make upwards of $100 a day. It’s worth the risk of getting his toes run over and fingers hit by windshield wipers. It’s worth it even when he hears stories of occasional violence, like the woman who told police that her registered firearm went off after a squeegee kid leaned inside her car. And it’s worth it even when some drivers offer Silas nothing at all, and he walks back to the sidewalk with less of his generic cleaner and no cash to show for it.
“We ain’t selling no drugs, we ain’t gangbangers, we ain’t killing nobody,” Silas said. “I never did nothing like that. I came right here, and I’m trying to make some legit money.”
Lester Spence, a Johns Hopkins University associate professor of political science and Africana studies, believes the renewed scrutiny hinges on the squeegee kids’ race. He said it’s no coincidence the pushback is happening alongside growing concerns about crime and policing since the death in police custody of Freddie Gray, a young black man who, like the squeegee workers, grew up in poverty.
“It’s not that there is a problem with people being on these corners because if there was, then we would be talking about the homeless population, who usually just asks for money and doesn’t necessarily provide services,” Spence said.
Silas, who is black, agrees that his race plays a role. He also wonders whether city officials are just trying to save face with their plan. Its estimated annual cost is $992,000, and Baltimore can fund it only through June. Edwards said she hopes businesses will pledge funds to help once the city can show the program’s positive effect.
For now, Silas will keep squeegeeing. The money is putting new shoes on his feet and paying for his baby daughter’s needs.
“If you take it serious like a job, it can be a job, money-wise,” Silas said. “Three years ago, I was like broke for real. I would never have no money in my pocket or nothing.”
But attitudes and acceptance were different then, he said. “Now everybody is mad at us. Why you all mad at us?”
He runs back into the street, and the 24-second countdown begins again.