Precarious refuges for Cecil County homeless

maryland scenes

Advocates seek to expand shelter despite resistance

November 09, 2008|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,

Squint and he might be just a considerate camper. The boots neatly lined up outside his one-man tent. The garbage carefully bagged. The fire ring laid out so flames won't leap to dry brush.

But look up at the hulking highway overpass that blots the sky. Listen to the cars and trucks zooming by, their tires going ba-bump, ba-bump overhead.

And consider Chris Jianniney himself. He's an affable man of 30 with a toothy smile and no fixed address. That tent? It's his castle, all he's got. He's been homeless for three years. For the past month he has been resting his head under this bridge near Elkton, comforted by an occasional sip of vodka and his Bible.

"I don't want to live like this," he says. "I want to be normal."

Homelessness, often seen as an urban scourge, has long been a problem in northeast Maryland. Financial woes are pushing folks over the edge and into a ditch where, as Jianniney can attest, shelter beds and other services are scarce.

No one knows this like the Rev. Carl Mazza, an advocate for the homeless for 27 years. He leads Meeting Ground, a congregation affiliated with the Presbyterian Church. Its core mission is to uplift those in need by providing shelter, food, job counseling and spiritual empowerment.

Meeting Ground is Cecil County's only homeless-shelter provider, he says, with 95 residents in three spots in Elkton and at a farm in rural Earleville. The waiting list is "in the hundreds."

"The problem has outstripped our ability to provide," Mazza said, "even though we've increased our number of beds significantly."

Meeting Ground wants to do more but has repeatedly met resistance from Elkton. This time, the issue is a planned day shelter for up to 75 people. Officials have blocked it for over a year, contending that for zoning purposes, it's a philanthropic, not religious, venture. And they argue that the crowds would hurt an adjacent funeral home.

In July, Meeting Ground sued Elkton in federal court. Last month, U.S. District Judge Catherine Blake ordered the town to consider granting permits so Meeting Ground can rehab property it bought last year and conduct undeniably religious functions such as worship and pastoral counseling that would be open to the homeless..

On Thursday, Mazza and J. Craig Trostle, Elkton's zoning administrator, reached an agreement along those lines.

Even so, further widening the purpose seems likely to be hashed out in court.

"It's certainly not going to resolve the entire case," said Kevin Karpinski, lawyer for the town.

But the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents the church, is confident that the day center uses will eventually be allowed. "We certainly believe all of the activities Meeting Ground wants to engage in are religious," said state legal director Deborah Jeon.

Mazza argues there is a great need for another place for people to take showers, do laundry, check the Internet for job openings and attend workshops.

In the meantime, there's work to be done. On a recent morning, Mazza, who's 62 and has tousled gray hair, made the rounds at the farm, called Clairvaux. Normally 35 people live there; these days 50 do, 15 of them children.

Clairvaux offers a rare setting among shelters. Geese fly overhead; a goat wanders around. The one-room chapel overlooks woods ablaze in a medley of gold, bronze and plum foliage.

Nice as it is, Myleshea Buffalo cannot wait to leave. She and her husband, Jason, arrived with their four children on Sept. 23, two weeks after their ramshackle trailer was condemned. He works at C&S Wholesale Grocers in North East. But his $11 hourly pay won't cover the $800 rent for a proper three-bedroom place.

So while the children watched cartoons in a common area, Myleshea Buffalo, 30, got ready for a job interview. She wore a red sweater and hoop earrings. The job? Janitorial work at C&S, where her husband audits truck loads overnight.

"I have to do something," she said of the job. It, too, would pay $11 an hour. She and her husband think they could save enough - at the shelter they pay $100 a month and help with food - to move to a home of their own by February.

Mazza next made the 15-minute drive to Elkton, where his group's men's shelter on Main Street serves lunch five days a week. Jianniney was among a few dozen people at picnic tables out back. After polishing off a plate of ham, mashed potatoes and green beans, he took a shower in the shelter, a building that Mazza says cannot properly offer the services envisioned for the building in dispute.

Then Jianniney tromped back to the bridge.

Jianniney is fortunate in some ways. The bridge is better than other spots, he says. It's drier than the woods, and there's nobody nearby who might steal from him. Kind-hearted people have given him clothing, food and that brand-new tent, where he reads his Bible at night by flashlight.

"Most of the time I'm by myself," he said.

In a week, a rotating winter shelter system run by churches will start in Cecil. Then he'll have a warm place to sleep - at last until spring.

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