Elkton's homeless fight back

The Baltimore Sun

ELKTON -- A dozen homeless men and women used to live here, in the shady woods behind a ramshackle strip mall, on a small patch of dirt now blanketed with shattered bottles.

But that was before the only home they knew was bulldozed. Their few belongings - clothes and canned foods, a family Bible, a grandfather's watch, a birth certificate - were scooped up and trashed.

"The whole place was clean," said Michael Kuhn, a 41-year-old homeless man who said he watched the razing of the site "like there was nobody there."

Kuhn and others say the Elkton police watched over the Aug. 23, 2006, incident, hands on their guns, threatening the men and women with arrest and fines if they attempted to retrieve their belongings.

Now the bulldozing and a subsequent anti-loitering ordinance are the subject of a federal lawsuit that the American Civil Liberties Union has filed against Elkton, a rural community of about 12,000 once known as the "marriage capital of the East" for wooing lovebirds eager for a quickie union.

The ACLU, on behalf of nine of the homeless men and women who inhabited the site behind the Elkton Antique Mall, is accusing town officials and police of unlawfully harassing and intimidating indigent residents by seizing their property and forcing them off public land. In the complaint, the group cited a "disturbing pattern of conduct" aimed at driving the homeless out of town.

"We are seeking justice for the injustice that happened," said Meredith Curtis, an ACLU spokeswoman. "It's an affront on the Constitution, and it's an affront on their dignity."

The ACLU complaint asserts that the anti-loitering ordinance, which prohibits begging in public places, also is unconstitutional. Elkton's mayor and commissioners unanimously backed its approval this summer. The mayor and the town's longtime attorney declined to comment for this article, and Elkton's police chief refused to give his version of events.

The two episodes have sparked not just the lawsuit, but animosity between local officials and the church leaders and activists working to serve the homeless.

Social service providers say Elkton's location off Interstate 95 makes the town a ready way station for the poor. It is less bustling, intimidating and expensive than Wilmington, Del., or Philadelphia or Baltimore, where the Downtown Partnership is accused of rousting a group of homeless people last week.

Advocates say the challenge of providing for the homeless is not going away and that Elkton, with its lamppost-lined Main Street, must adjust.

"Part of this problem is what we call NIMBY, 'Not in my backyard,'" said Nicholas J. Ricciuti, director of the Cecil County Department of Social Services. "But also, there is an emotional attachment to Main Street and a nostalgia for the way Main Street used to be. And that's one of the factors that we're dealing with."

Opposing views

The question of what to do about the homeless can polarize good people with starkly opposing views about what government owes its most destitute citizens.

Elkton Town Commissioner Mary Jo Jablonski, who also serves as Main Street manager for the Elkton Chamber of Commerce, said she voted for the anti-loitering ordinance because several merchants complained to her about panhandling. She also heard that attendees of the local classic car show were bothered for money and cigarettes.

"Some of them have been drinking," she said of the panhandlers. "When alcohol is involved, you don't know how a person is going to be. You don't know that person."

Jablonski also points to the effort that local officials have poured into the $12 million renovation of downtown. She is proud of the new brick-lined sidewalks and the lavender lamppost banners boasting that "The Arts are Alive in Elkton."

Jablonski said she didn't learn of the homeless site's destruction until afterward, but she is supportive of the move. "I don't feel like they should've been where they were all this time," she said.

Others disagree. Lisa Neary, an employee of a laundry next to the site, says she knew the men and women who lived in the woods. She let them wash their clothes even when they didn't have money. They sometimes used the laundromat's sink to scrub up.

The town and police are "persecuting" the homeless, in Neary's view. "This is like an old-fashioned lynching," she said.

Elkton Mayor Joseph L. Fisona did not respond to phone calls seeking comment. H. Norman Wilson, Jr., the town attorney, declined to comment.

In a brief phone interview, Elkton Police Chief William Ryan said he wrote the anti-loitering ordinance, which among other restrictions prohibits loitering, congregating or prowling "in a place, at a time or in a manner not usual for law-abiding individuals." He said the town does have a homeless problem, but that the ordinance was directed at prostitutes and drug dealers, not the homeless.

Beyond that, he would not comment. "I'm not getting into the August of 2006 [incident] with you," he said. "That's presently under review and litigation with the ACLU."

Punishment for violating the ordinance is a fine not to exceed $500 and/or 60 days imprisonment.

ACLU officials say they believe the law is on their side. In a 1972 case, the Supreme Court deemed unconstitutional a Florida vagrancy statute that the justices said was overly vague. In 1999, the high court struck down for violating freedom of assembly a Chicago anti-loitering ordinance intended to curb gang activity.

Kevin Karpinski, a Baltimore attorney representing Elkton officials in the case, said his firm is reviewing the town ordinance and that he could not comment about the lawsuit. He did say that the site where Kuhn and others lived was cleared by the Elkton Department of Public Works at the request of town police.

As for the property of the homeless who lived there, Karpinski said, "I believe the items were thrown away. Most of them were soiled. A lot of them were wet. And others, it was viewed, did not have any value. The items did not have any value."

Not enough shelters

Though it is difficult to count homeless people, social service officials estimate that there are more than 400 in Cecil County, including children and domestic violence victims and others in public shelters.

Advocates say the 74 shelter beds for the homeless in the Elkton area aren't enough. With a grant from the state health department, a coalition of groups has started purchasing houses in town in an effort to expand available space. Area churches banded together last winter to provide a rotating shelter during the coldest months. Others are opening their homes to strangers.

Carla Reeves, a widow with a 6-year-old daughter and two adult sons, has turned her Elkton garage into a shelter, complete with air mattresses, mismatched floral bedding and a new bathroom built by two of her homeless tenants. The county social services staff refer people to her when their Main Street men's shelter or a nearby facility for women are full.

On a recent 100-degree day, Reeves had 14 people living with her. Two fans whirred in the sleeping area, pushing stagnant air in vain. Ashtrays held extinguished cigarettes. Gym bags lined the shelves. In one corner, a homeless visitor's books were stacked neatly, John Saul's Darkness and The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren, among them.

Reeves, who left her Mennonite home as a child and wound up on the streets for a time, says she's been helping area homeless for about five years.

"We'll be OK because God will provide," she said.

She banters easily with her guests, many of whom she has taken to doctor appointments or to pick up their Social Security checks. She does regular rounds of the remaining campsites, dropping off food to those in need.

But some homeless people do not want to be tied down, not to Reeves' house or a local shelter.

Kuhn, who lost his grandfather's watch in last summer's camp raid, is one of them. He has found a campsite in another stretch of woods. Wearing a camouflage T-shirt, black shorts and weathered hiking boots, he recently took Reeves to his new place. The site has a generator and tented sleeping area, but was littered with garbage bags overflowing with beer cans. A mirror hung from a tree. A crumpled American flag, the faded red stripes bleeding into the white, dangled from the branch of another.

"This is awesome," Reeves said, with enthusiasm fit for a friend's purchase of a new condo.

Looking at the ground, Kuhn, a former concrete finisher, replied.

"This is it; it ain't much," he said. "It's what I got."

jennifer.skalka@baltsun.com

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