Baltimore’s ‘Squeegee Boys’: ‘If We Don’t Go Out, We Don’t Eat’

The federal government’s relief package left behind many of America’s poorest workers struggling to make ends meet as the coronavirus ravaged and unemployment rose. Baltimore’s “squeegee boys” are among them. The past few months of social distancing have only exaggerated the long-standing economic and social divides, contributing to the protests cascading across the U.S. In most hard-hit cities, rates of COVID-19 are generally inversely proportional to income. (Left: Chaseedaw Giles/KHN; Right: Elvert Barnes via flickr)

On the corner of South President and East Pratt streets in Baltimore a little over a month ago, a young man in a black hoodie stood out on an otherwise empty intersection. A single gold chain with a cross hung around his neck. With a squeegee in his left blue-latex-gloved hand and a plastic spray bottle in his right — filled with a solution of vinegar, water and glass cleaner — he watched for the traffic lights to turn red and a chance to make some money.

Evay H., 21, tries to clean windshields for a small donation from the drivers. He’s lucky if he gets $2 a vehicle. It’s not much, but it’s something.

He used to be a food runner and busser at the celebrated Charleston Restaurant on Baltimore’s Harbor East front, which, like many dining establishments around the country, was forced to shutter in March to slow the spread of the coronavirus. (Because mistrust for law enforcement runs high among Baltimore youth, Evay asked that his last name be withheld.) While awaiting his unemployment check — which still has not come — Evay relied on washing car windows at this intersection to pay for food and rent. He lives with his 25-year old brother, who is also unemployed.

As the coronavirus spread and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan ramped up the enforcement of stay-at-home and social-distancing orders, Evay’s cash flow slowed from sometimes $200 a day to a mere trickle. “It’s the social distance, for real. They don’t want to roll down their window.”

When a police officer asked him to move, “He told me no one is supposed to be out unless you’re going to work.”

‘I am going to work,’” he replied.

Millions of Americans have hunkered down at home during the COVID-19 pandemic to protect themselves and their families. But many millions too, like Evay, have been unable to heed the warnings and mandates ― for them, it’s a matter of survival. The past few months of social distancing have only exaggerated the long-standing economic and social divides, contributing to the protests cascading across the U.S. In most hard-hit cities, rates of COVID-19 are generally inversely proportional to income.

When it comes to fear over getting sick while out on the street washing windows, he said his worries were “50-50,” And, likewise, it was not COVID-19 on his mind when he said he joined the peaceful protests twice on South Sharp and West Pratt streets this past week.

George Floyd’s violent death under a policeman’s knee raised bigger, long-standing issues for him: “I think the fires and everything are necessary, because if not they would’ve let it pass and it would keep happening.”

Here’s his personal calculation: He has health insurance. He and his brother live in the Perkins Homes public housing development. Their rent is $850, and monthly utilities with Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. come to about $300. He also pays $23 a month for life insurance. “Just in case I die, I don’t want my mom struggling to pay for the funeral.” That brings his monthly bills — not including food and any other necessities — to just under $1,200.

While low-income citizens could submit a “simple tax return” to receive a $1,200 payment from the federal government’s coronavirus stimulus bill, the relief package provided only a single breath of air for many of America’s poor households drowning in this economy.

Many of Baltimore’s squeegee workers aren’t in high school, so they don’t qualify for the free lunches made available to the community by the local school districts. The Mayor’s Office of Children and Family Success has tried to help by hiring squeegee workers to deliver these free meals. The initiative is part of the “Earn As You Grow” piece of what the office calls the Squeegee Alternative Plan. The pay? Fifty dollars a day or $250 per week, which doesn’t match what they typically make cleaning car windows.

Baltimore police officers attempt to disperse a small group of squeegee workers at the intersection of East Lombard and Market Place streets. (Chaseedaw Giles/KHN)

A Baltimore Police Department unit deals exclusively with the squeegee workers because they have long been a source of conflict in an often racially polarized city. Some city officials have, at times, attempted to ban them. But the police weren’t targeting them during the lockdown, said one officer, who spoke anonymously because he wasn’t authorized to speak for the department.

Patrol officers who have built a rapport with the crews may ask them to disperse if there are more than six or 10 in a group. “We’ll say, ‘Hey, do us a favor. Clear this area,’” the officer said. “We know most of these kids are just trying to make a living.”

Washing car windows at intersections is not illegal in Baltimore. But the squeegee workers have been a target for complaints as new residents, unfamiliar with the crew, report them to authorities as a nuisance. “Are the #squeegeeboys essential personnel or do they consider the streets ‘working from home’? @BaltCoGov I guess y’all are ok with them touching all over people’s cars and not making them take their asses home,” said one person in a tweet. These types of complaints often lead to 911 calls.

That same afternoon, as Evay worked his corner, two young men with squeegees and spray bottles in hand approached cars at the stoplight on South Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. “If we don’t go out, we don’t eat,” said Sieed O., a 24-year-old from East Baltimore.

He and his 17-year-old partner in cleaning had walked about 45 minutes from East Baltimore to this spot, where many of Baltimore’s squeegee crews operate, earning $5 to $7 a pop. “It’s this or doing something illegal. We’re out here because we’re hungry.”

Chaseedaw Giles, Kaiser Health News

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