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Elkton changes its attitude about the homeless

People tend to think of homelessness as an urban problem. Perhaps that's why the town of Elkton, population 14,842, has seen such conflict over the encampments of homeless men and women that have sprung up nearby. From the razing of a homeless encampment in the woods in 2006 that displaced a dozen men and women who had already seen enough displacement to the blocking of a church from operating a day center for the homeless in town in 2007, the Cecil County community appeared determined to push the homeless out of sight and out of mind.

But two legal settlements this month demonstrate that after years of fighting, Elkton has arrived at a more compassionate attitude about the dispossessed in its midst. Early this month, Elkton agreed to pay eight homeless people $7,500 each to compensate them for the destruction of their belongings in the razing of the encampment. And on Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union announced a settlement between the town and the Meeting Ground, a Christian ministry that operates a 95-bed homeless shelter and had been trying for years to open the Mary Randall Center, a 75-person day shelter in town. Meeting Ground will get $70,000 to compensate it for grants it missed out on during the two years the city prevented the center from being open (and another $70,000 will go to the lawyers), but the important thing is that advocates for the homeless in the community are now able to do their work unfettered. The Randall Center offers Bible study, worship service and prayer but also showers, food, job training and telephone and Internet access.

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The town initially blocked the opening of the Randall Center by contending that it served a philanthropic, not religious, function and thus didn't meet the zoning requirements for its property. With the help of local attorneys and the ACLU, Meeting Ground sued in federal court, arguing that ministering to the homeless was an integral part of its religious mission and was thus protected under the constitution and federal law. The church won a preliminary injunction in 2008, forcing the town to allow renovations and eventually an occupancy permit for the property. The center opened in the spring, and this month's settlement resolved the last remaining issues about its use and about financial compensation for the church.

In the meantime, something unexpected has happened. The powers that be in Elkton have decided that collaboration, not confrontation, is the right response to homelessness. With the blessing of town leaders, the Elkton Lions Club has established the Elkton Homelessness Collaborative, a committee of religious and civic leaders working together to determine how to tackle a deep-rooted and multi-faceted problem. The group is in its early stages, but the Rev. Carl Mazza of Meeting Ground says the spirit of cooperation is strong and is a testament to the town's growth in understanding what is needed and what can be accomplished. The confrontations, lawsuits and reconciliation have "been a learning experience for all of us," Reverend Mazza says.

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"Homelessness is a social problem that is not going away by wishing it or by forcing it," he says. "It takes concerted action, and that's what's happening here in Elkton."


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