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Opinion A better way for Baltimore to help its ‘squeegee kids’

A boy squeegees the windshield of a car on May 19 in exchange for cash in Baltimore. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)

DeForest “Buster” Soaries is pastor emeritus of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens, N.J., a board member of the Stand Together Foundation and co-chair of the Heal America Movement.

Does Baltimore care about squeegee kids? That’s the most important question after a driver attacked one of them and was shot dead in return last month. Everyone in cities like Baltimore knows these kids, who live in terrible poverty and stand at stoplights and street corners and wipe the windshields of passing cars. Sadly, in the wake of this tragedy, the risk is that Baltimore will double down on failed approaches that trap squeegee kids in poverty, instead of helping them escape it.

This heartbreaking incident has generally divided people along two lines. The first is the most obvious: Crack down on these kids — or even lock ’em up. According to this common response, squeegeeing is illegal for a reason. It’s annoying and dangerous, especially during rush hour when traffic is thick and tensions are high. The thinking goes that the police should intervene and get squeegee kids off the streets for good.

But is arresting and even imprisoning these kids going to solve anything? This approach basically means punishing poverty. Squeegee kids are typically middle or high school dropouts. They’re doing it because they want to earn a quick buck — and the alternatives are dealing drugs, joining gangs or worse. If they end up behind bars at such a young age, Baltimore will basically doom them to a life of crime. A criminal crackdown on squeegee kids will lead to more poverty, more violence and more heartbreak.

The second response is no better: sweeping poverty under the rug. The recent tragedy has led many to call for new government programs and projects targeted at squeegee kids. According to this thinking, society writ large needs to do something, anything, to help. Left unspoken is the reality of these programs, which generally involves throwing money at the problem — the definition of one-size-fits-all.

But does anyone really expect this to work? No doubt it’s well intentioned, but the same is true of all the costly programs and projects from the past 50 years — virtually none of which have made a meaningful, lasting difference. If one-size-fits-all solutions worked, then Baltimore wouldn’t be in this mess to begin with. Trying again would merely perpetuate squeegee kids’ poverty, when they really need individualized help to leave poverty behind.

Baltimore can do better than perpetuating poverty or criminally punishing it. Instead of listening to the loudest voices, the city should look to the effective efforts that tackle the root causes of each squeegee kid’s situation.

Lo and behold, there is much inspiration to be found.

Consider Thread, a Baltimore nonprofit that’s weaving “a new social fabric.” It focuses on the kids who are most affected by structural barriers — many of whom could be future squeegee kids. Thread connects them with community members who become interwoven into each other’s lives, giving them the encouragement and support they need to succeed in school and then in life. This isn’t a one- or two-year thing; it’s a 10-year commitment or more. Thread’s unique approach has helped hundreds of kids achieve goals they never imagined possible.

Then there’s New Vision Youth Services, which connects struggling kids with mentors who’ve lived similar experiences. These mentors have squeegeed, dropped out of school, spent time in prison, you name it. They help the kids believe in themselves, giving them the boost needed to finish their education and start a better life. New Vision Youth Services has empowered hundreds of kids, including more than a few squeegee kids.

Are these the only efforts that work? Of course not. I know of other inspiring groups in Baltimore and dozens nationwide. These incredible projects are making a difference because they spring from the ordinary love and care that people feel toward their own communities. Even more important: The people behind them believe in the dignity, worth and incredible potential of these undervalued and overlooked kids. That, more than anything, is what squeegee kids need.

So how can Baltimore help squeegee kids? By recognizing that we all are involved in the answer. The city needs private citizens and churches and nonprofits and scrappy start-ups, not more public programs and police departments that reach down from on high to “solve” these kids. Each person can do something, from mentoring to donating to volunteering. Even the drivers who deal with squeegee kids on a daily basis can step up. It’s as simple as rolling down the window and referring them to a group that can help.

This is hard work, no question. But it’s much better than taking the easy and uncaring road of dooming squeegee kids to a life of crime, poverty or both. They deserve so much better — and they’re capable of so much more.