Amid the public hostility and media pandering directed at young people with squeegees at Baltimore intersections, Kim Trueheart came up with a way to help them.
She got nine young men off the corner and, using city and foundation funding, trained them in job readiness and landscaping skills. She then gave them paid work mowing, cutting and cleaning city-owned lots.
So when Trueheart saw a $40,000 contract to remove invasive species around Druid Lake and the Ashburton reservoir going to a Baltimore County company that does not employ city youth, the longtime community activist called her contacts at City Hall to object.
And she didn’t relent even after officials told her the work was “too complex” for the young men who just completed her five-week Bmore Clean & Green pilot program.
“I’m sort of offended when we are told that the work is complex. Our young men can do complex work if given the opportunity,” Trueheart said at Wednesday’s Board of Estimates meeting, protesting the contract slated to go to Lorenz, Inc.
But Travis Minott, an assistant manager with the Department of Public Works, said the work would be especially difficult and dangerous since the aim is to remove vines and trees at the root.
“It’s going to involve chainsaws, it’s going to involve cutting, it’s going to involve walking on sloped hills,” Minott said.
Trueheart pushed back, noting that the 18- to 24-year-olds in her program had received certification after being trained in OSHA worker safety, defibrillator use and CPR.
“They are motivated. They need jobs. They need these kinds of opportunities. I’m begging you,” Trueheart told Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young and other board members as four program participants stood behind her.
Lending a Hand
The Brew went to the Liberty Rec and Tech Center last month to see Trueheart’s program in action just as it was wrapping up.
“I picked these young men off the corner. All of them had graduated from high school and had attempted college,” she said. “None of them graduated [from college]. I picked those who had had a formal job, and those who never had one.”
During the morning, classes were held on everything from resume writing to safety measures. In the afternoon, the young men were supervised mowing and cleaning city-owned lots, mostly in the Sandtown neighborhood.
“Miss Kim’s program helped get me off the street,” Ronald Robinson, 23, said, taking a break from his work.
“I was squeegeeing since I was 17,” he said, explaining he wanted to leave that life behind because “it just too much going on out there. And the police keep arresting us.”
Robinson, who mainly worked at Hilton Street and North Avenue, said the public criticism of squeegeeing is unfair.
“We’re not bad people. We don’t disrespect you. We do this cause we want to make some money,” he said.
”I get people who curse me. ‘Get the f— away from my car.’ I don’t do nothing back. I just walk away cause they can shoot me. I got a guy who did try to run me over.”
“We’re not bad people. We don’t disrespect you. We do this cause we want to make some money.”
On a slow day, he said, he would make $150, and on a good day much more – money he’s been trying to save. Robinson’s dream is to have his own brand of clothing some day: “Got my own ideas for a clothing line.”
Meanwhile, he’s been happy to have been on the Bmore Clean & Green team.
“Miss Kim has been good,” he said. “She get me prepared for a real job and stuff.”
Trueheart succeeded in getting the spending board to postpone the contract for two weeks to try to work out a solution.
Both Young and City Council President Brandon M. Scott said the men should be given an opportunity to do some, if not all, of the reservoir work.
If her crew is given a chance to participate, Trueheart said, she’s lined up two contractors willing to supervise, Letke Security Contractors and R.E. Harrington. Kim Letke, who spoke at the board meeting, said she would donate $5,000 toward the effort.
Trueheart said she’s grateful for the funding she so far received ($34,000 from the city and $5,000 from the Abell Foundation) and is looking forward to making the program bigger. All of her initial graduates are interviewing for entry-level jobs with city agencies.
At Wednesday’s board meeting, Purchasing Agent Erin Sher Smyth said companies other than Lorenz were contacted about the reservoir cleaning, but none wanted to do it.
Trueheart wouldn’t accept that explanation.
She said the Young administration has to do a better job of finding homegrown companies and helping them develop, especially given the number of unemployed youth in poor neighborhoods.
“The city needs to cultivate new businesses, minority businesses. I don’t see them doing that.”
Eventually, Trueheart said, she’d like to help enterprising “squeegee boys” and other young people establish their own landscaping company and bid on municipal work.
Every year, she noted, Recreation and Parks, DPW and other agencies spend nearly $50 million to mow grass, clean lots, plant trees and perform other tasks that could provide employment for city youth.