For years, the Mall in Columbia shopping center has been a popular early morning haunt. There are power walkers, caffeine-craving commuters and, often, some of Howard County's homeless, who buy coffee if they can afford it or sometimes just stake out a spot to pass a few hours.
Now, though, the premier mall in one of the nation's richest counties has started taking a harder line against the homeless.
In recent weeks, at least two homeless people have been banned from entering the mall, and about 20 more have been told that they should stay out during the early morning, according to some homeless people and their advocates.
"I understand that the mall is private property, but it's open to the public, and when you're trying to utilize the services of some of the vendors and you're thrown out, that's almost a violation of your civil rights," said a 62-year-old woman, who said she was banned this month for what security guards said was disturbing the peace.
The mall's ownership, General Growth Properties, declined to make anyone available for questions Thursday. A spokesman issued a statement on behalf of the mall's general manager, Katie Essing.
"If anyone does not adhere to our rules and regulations," the statement read in part, "they are first issued a warning; and secondly, if their behavior does not improve, they are banned from the center."
Residents of the county's emergency winter shelter are typically dropped off each morning and picked up each evening at the mall's bus stop, which is the transit hub in Columbia. While some venture elsewhere in the county for the day, others opt to enter the mall, which counts among its tenants Nordstrom, L.L. Bean, the Apple Store and AMC movie theaters.
Many stores do not open until 10 a.m. on weekdays, but Starbucks opens at 6:30, and McDonald's and Panera Bread open at 8.
About a month ago, the mall's management contacted Grassroots Crisis Intervention, said Douglas Carl, the nonprofit group's manager of emergency and outreach homeless services. Grassroots was told that residents of the emergency shelter should not enter the shopping center before 10 a.m., Carl said.
The mall management, he said, expressed concerns about incidents involving people believed to be residents of the emergency shelter.
"I'm certainly not going to say that there are never any problems with people that stay in our shelter," Carl said, "but I have no way of knowing whether the individuals that they were referring to were in our shelters."
State Del. Elizabeth Bobo (D-Howard) said she wants to know more about how the mall is handling homeless people. "I want to be convinced that they are not being singled out, and so I am going to be pursuing this for a while," Bobo said.
Grassroots, which receives county funding, operates a 33-bed shelter for families and single women and an 18-bed shelter for single men. From late November to late March, Grassroots coordinates the cold-weather emergency program, which provides shelter at houses of worship across the county.
In the weeks since the mall contacted Grassroots, security guards have been confronting people presumed to be homeless, one man said after arriving at the mall Thursday morning from the emergency shelter.
"I tell them, 'I'm an American, and there are a hundred other Americans walking around the mall,' " said the man, neatly dressed and freshly showered, who said he regularly buys coffee at the mall's McDonald's.
A few minutes later, two security guards appeared and ordered a Washington Post reporter to leave the mall grounds. One of the guards, J. Middleton, said interviewing people at the mall without permission constituted solicitation and warned that police would charge the reporter with criminal trespassing if they were summoned.
Deborah A. Jeon of the ACLU of Maryland said that although malls are private property, owners do not have an unfettered right to ban people.
"Anybody who's committing a crime could be removed from the property," said Jeon, who helped resolve a dispute over homeless persons' access to shopping centers in Baltimore and Cecil counties. "But people who have legitimate business there and aren't doing any harm, getting a cup of coffee or talking to a friend - there's no reason the mall should be interested in removing such people."
The targets of the mall's efforts say the crackdown is aimed at far more people than the few who have been disruptive.
"The head of security at the mall has a general grievance about the homeless hanging out at the mall," said a 59-year-old man who said he has been homeless for more than two years and regularly passes time there, sometimes purchasing food with gift cards given to him.The man, who lives outdoors, said he spends most of his days at the nearby central library and goes to the mall in the morning and evening.
"I'm basically a familiar fixture to them," he said. "I do not scare people away. I don't panhandle. I don't glare at anybody."
But he said he was confronted on Feb. 2 by a security guard who told him that he had entered the mall through a restricted tunnel, which the man denied. When he went back to the mall a week later, the security guard confronted him again and told him he was trespassing. "He said I had ignored the admonition not to come to the mall after hours," the man recalled.
The mall lists 9 p.m. as its closing time, but Nordstrom, Lord & Taylor, J.C. Penney, Macy's and Starbucks are open until at least 9:30 most nights. The time noted on the banning order was 21:28, or 9:28 p.m.