ACLU protests Mall in Columbia’s banning of homeless people

March 29, 2011

Troubled by the banning of some homeless people from the Mall in Columbia, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland sent a letter Tuesday to the shopping center’s general manager urging her to reverse the bans and reconsider the mall’s policies toward homeless people.

Since the banning came to light last month, the ACLU has been investigating the legality of the mall’s actions, and in particular the recent banning of two homeless people.

Stephan Rabai and Patricia Francis were issued “no trespassing” notices this year and threatened with arrest if they stepped onto mall property, according to the ACLU’s letter, which was also sent to Howard County Police Chief William McMahon.

In the letter, ACLU Legal Director Deborah A. Jeon said that neither individual’s banning could be justified under Maryland law.

“While we certainly understand the Mall’s interest in ensuring a safe and pleasant environment for customers of the businesses located there, we believe the specific actions taken against Ms. Francis, Mr. Rabai and other homeless individuals are unfair and illegal,” Jeon writes.

The mall’s general manager, Katie Essing, has said that the mall is open to everyone but that people who break the mall’s rules will first be warned and then, if the violations continue, be banned.

But Jeon writes that Francis and Rabai have not been any trouble and have been regular customers of businesses at the mall.

“Neither of these mild-mannered individuals has created any disruption or been made aware of any merchant or patron complaints against them so as to justify the Mall’s actions.”

Greg Harris, a spokesman for the mall, issued a statement Tuesday afternoon on behalf of Essing, challenging the assertions of the ACLU but expressing a willingness to reconsider the banning orders against the two people represented by the civil liberties group.

Harris said that Francis and Rabai were not targeted because they are homeless but because they had broken mall rules.

One of them had, on more than one occasion, left personal possessions unattended in the food court, Harris said. The other had been found more than once in an area of the mall where the general public is not allowed, Harris said, an allegation that the ACLU specifically challenged in its letter.

“Not only are these clear violations of our code of conduct, but they also pose potential breaches of public safety,” Harris said. “Our number one priority is ensuring the safety and well-being of all of our shoppers.”

In the statement, Harris said the mall’s managers would be open to talking about the possibility of rescinding the ban.

Sherry Llewellyn, a spokeswoman for the Howard County police, said the chief was out of the office Tuesday and had not been able to review the letter from the ACLU.

Although the ACLU’s seven-page letter focuses on the legal issues at stake, it also raises more fundamental questions about the mall’s role in a community that includes homeless people.

The mall, Jeon writes, “offers a refuge, and some semblance of normalcy, common humanity and comfort that Ms. Francis, Mr. Rabai and others suffering through homelessness greatly value — perhaps more than do those who simply come to the Mall on occasion to do some quick shopping.

“So long as their conduct does not cause Mall merchants to refuse their business, nor other patrons to make verifiable complaints, it is needlessly cruel and hurtful for Mall management and the Howard County Police to deny them access to this cherished refuge.”

The ACLU has also created a video of an interview with Francis and Rabai about their banning.

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