On Monday night, City Councilman Kristerfer Burnett of the 8th District said if squeegee workers were white, the narrative around their plight would be different. “The response would be different,” he said. While that comment makes headlines today, I thought it important to share the longer prepared statement Burnett made earlier in the day.
I feel I have a duty to challenge the narrative that continually perpetuates the adultification, violence and mass incarceration of brown and black children in Baltimore City. I preface what I am about to say with: I’m not trying to minimize anyone’s negative encounters; or the tragedy that happened last Thursday — the circumstances that led to that are all deeply saddening — but I also want to highlight that a lot of the incidents that occur are isolated.
For years, my daily commute through West and Southwest Baltimore takes me through corners along Hilton Street, where I used to regularly encounter youth and young adults who were squeegeeing car windshields for money. Personally, I have never had anything but positive encounters with these young people and while I know others have had the opposite, as we’ve seen that first hand over the last few days, I want to give context to those making incredibly harmful and damaging blanket statements about squeegee workers in Baltimore City.
What I’ve been hearing in the media, on social media, from citizens, business owners and elected officials alike is that we need to use law enforcement to solve this problem. But, is this what we need? The same tired response that leaves young adults less employable when they are arrested on the corner than they were before the officer showed up?
I want to remind everyone of the circumstances which bring a lot of these youth to these corners… most of which, if not always, are out of necessity to survive through challenging circumstances.
This was true for the family that my office assisted in finding emergency housing after learning of an 8-year-old child and their siblings working on a corner near Martin Luther King Blvd. The child’s mother was fleeing brutal domestic violence and staying in a nearby hotel that she couldn’t continue to afford on her salary — she needed her children to squeegee to ensure they’d not have to return to the violence in their home. I lift this up as we continue to have conversations about what is not working, about how we got here… where we are severely lacking resources.
Luckily, working through a network of city services and non-profit partners, we were able to assist this family. But a lot of families in Baltimore are not able to get the support they need, do not have an alternative, due to a lack of resources or even knowing who to turn to. I say luckily because this was an incredibly time-consuming and laborious task; it took us weeks to secure the appropriate resources. My staff called the Mayor’s Office of Homelessness every day for weeks to see if there were resources available; coordinating efforts between government agencies and nonprofits, etc. These systems are in no way easy to navigate, even for those of us who know where to look.
The former Squeegee Corps and now the updated Squeegee Alternative Plan, led by the esteemed Dr. Andre Bundley, from the Office of African American Male Engagement, focuses on going directly to the corners daily, using Credible Mentors to engage the youth, consistent programming, and quality connected relationships to help guide those youth to alternatives. Additionally, Rick Leandr, now working for the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Engagement, developed relationships with multiple youth in the Hilton Corridor and guided them over 4 years to where we can now see the growth and impact of the program. The system to successfully transition the youth from squeegeeing to meaningful pathways was created by the Mayor’s Office. And because of these programs, over time, I began to see fewer and fewer of those same young people on the corners of Hilton on my daily commute.
Want to know what those young adults are up to now? Well let me tell you…
● 3 have graduated from high school
● 1 works at Horseshoe Casino
● 1 is still engaged with the program and will be working at the Revival hotel
● 1 works for DPW
● 1 works for Rec and Parks
● 1 has worked at Burger King for the past 3 years
All proud, all gainfully employed.
Others we have heard from are currently exploring different jobs and professional and technical training to find what careers suit them. But the circumstances that these young people live through remain virtually unchanged. Other young people from these communities make the same choice to panhandle — because of their pride, they chose to work rather than receive what they refer to as “handouts.”
The youth/young adults prefer Squeegee Workers because they view it as a job. A humble one.
And when presented with a real opportunity to make better money, most will take it. Many of these young people live in communities where their peers are engaging in drug dealing and robberies to make a living — they are choosing not to and view this as close to a legitimate opportunity to make money as they can get.
We, as a city, have not created the opportunities for these youth to make other choices; to have alternative incomes to support the needs of their families.
Programs like the one Rick used to work for are chronically underfunded, are understaffed, and are often criticized by elected leaders and business leaders alike for the lack of immediate results in transitioning youth off of corners and into formal work environments. As if solving systemic issues like this is JUST that easy.
It’s estimated that over 20,000 young people have disengaged from city schools, most of which have experienced homelessness, violence, trauma, and the many failures that our society chooses to ignore in search of short-term solutions to hide the outcomes of our collective inaction.
And these issues are not new to us. These are systemic issues that have gone unchecked for decades.
Especially given the fragile economic state the majority of our citizens live in, we as the legislative body, we as community leaders, MUST prioritize programs that support our youth and the actual well-being of our communities.
We must be proactive and better fund programs like Youth Works, so we aren’t leaving students seeking summer jobs left behind; proactively fund community programs to prevent violence, like the incident that took place last week, and quite frankly continues to plague most of our neighborhoods.
The City Council and the Mayor’s Office need to better support programs that provide direct outreach to these corners and help these young people transition. Residents need to step up too – programs that are seeking mentors are often short of people willing to lend a hand. PTA meetings are often empty cafeterias and the fabric of our community has long been torn. Community cannot wait for the government to solve this problem without getting involved. We are all at fault. We all need to do more. It’s my hope that we can turn this tragedy into a watershed moment that will make our city a better place for all of us.
The lives of Baltimore’s citizens depend on real solutions. The lives of our children and future leaders depend on this. This also means truly showing our love, care and compassion for the children of the city, OUR children. Let’s come up with REAL solutions instead of continuously talking about what’s NOT working.