ACLU asks Columbia mall to stop 'illegal' bans against homeless

Two say they were excluded for no reason

  • Patricia R. "Anne" Francis, right, is disabled and homeless and has been barred for a year from The Mall in Columbia, allegedly for breaking mall rules. Meredith Curtis, left, is with the Maryland ACLU, which has taken up Francis' case and another homeless person's.
Patricia R. "Anne" Francis, right, is disabled… (Algerina Perna, Baltimore…)
March 30, 2011|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

The American Civil Liberties Union's Maryland chapter has asked managers of The Mall in Columbia to reverse one-year banning orders issued to two middle-aged homeless people who say they were ejected from the center last month for no apparent reason.

Mall manager Katie Essing strongly denied the charge in a prepared statement that said the two people were banned for repeatedly violating mall rules, but she offered to meet with the two and discuss it.

The letter, sent to both Essing and to Howard County police Chief William J. McMahon, said Patricia R. "Anne" Francis and Stephan Rabai were illegally banned from mall property in early February's bitter cold despite being patrons of food stores there and causing no disturbances. The letter calls the bans "unfair and illegal," and urges the mall to reconsider them. The mall is owned by Chicago-based General Growth Properties.

In an e-mail Tuesday, Essing said the mall was within its rights to ban Francis and Rabai.

"These individuals were approached for no other reason than repeated violations of the mall's code of conduct," Essing said. She said one person left personal possessions unattended on multiple occasions in the food court. The other was allegedly repeatedly in areas not open to the public. Essing called these "potential breaches of public safety."

Francis said she left her Samsonite suitcase and a book on a table while going into Starbucks for something to eat. Rabai said the entrance he used was not marked as restricted and he was later banned after using a public entrance during mall business hours.

"I'm hopeful we'll be able to negotiate about this," said Deborah Jeon, the ACLU's legal director. She said Essing may not be fully aware of the facts. Court action "is one of the things we'd consider," Jeon said.

She added that she wants Howard County police to question what they see if they are called to make a trespassing arrest at the mall. By arresting people who are being illegally evicted, "the police compound wrongdoing," she said.

Francis, 62, said in a video produced by the legal organization that the ban has been doubly hurtful because she depends on the Howard Transit buses that stop on mall property as her only mode of transportation.

In a separate interview Tuesday, she said she survives on $571 per month in Social Security benefits but lives outdoors except for the time she spends at the county's main library and at the mall. She suffers from multiple ailments, she said, including diabetes, lupus and fibromyalgia. She lost her last apartment, and spent all her retirement savings to treat her various illnesses, she said. Losing access to the mall and the bus stop there has hurt her, she said.

"It makes a difficult situation even more difficult."

Francis said she was first approached by a security guard Jan. 27 after buying food at a Starbucks, she said in the video. She was told her belongings would be confiscated if she left them at a table, then she was told to leave. She did and was forced to stay outside all day after a snowstorm, since the county library nearby was closed. On Feb. 3, she returned and was given a banning notice for allegedly disturbing the peace.

Rabai said he was reading a book on a mall sofa Feb. 2 when a guard approached and told him to leave. A week later, the same thing happened and he was banned for a year.

The issue was first raised in a Washington Post article Feb. 11.

Howard County's annual cold weather shelter, hosted by a variety of churches from late November until spring, ended Sunday night, according to Andrea Ingram, director of Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center in Columbia, the county's main homeless shelter.

At Essing's request, Ingram had asked people coming from the nightly, movable shelter on Howard Transit buses not to enter the mall before 10 a.m., even though the facility opens at 6 a.m. for walkers and those seeking an early breakfast. Francis said she has bought inexpensive clothing at JCPenney, food at various stores and books at Borders. Rabai said he has used gift cards to buy food and insists he has not caused any disruptions.

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