Elkton's homeless fight back

ACLU lawsuit alleges a `pattern of conduct' meant to drive out poor

August 20, 2007|By Jennifer Skalka | Jennifer Skalka,Sun reporter

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.

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