ELKTON — As many grabbed essentials from their Thanksgiving shopping lists at the Acme in the Big Elk Mall on Wednesday, 54-year-old Patricia Cappucino created a different kind of list at her encampment made up of tents, chairs and grocery bags behind the shopping mall.
Informed of an impending chain-link fence – measuring about 6 feet high and about 1,800 feet long – that mall owners, The Cordish Companies, will be placing along the back of the property, Cappucino began planning what she will take on her search for a new place to live.
"I'm just gonna grab whatever I can: batteries, my food cart, books in this backpack, whatever drinks I can take," said Cappucino, who described herself as "mentally handicapped, and unable to read or write" with no family in the area.
She referred to her living situation as an "unfortunate accident that got stuck" seven years ago, and said she has been behind the plaza ever since.
Cappucino's was the only encampment setup on the shopping center's actual property, so she was requested to move. The nearby encampments belonging to an estimated 40 to 60 people in the woods – behind the plaza but on park property – can stay, but with one caveat. The fence will not allow pedestrian access from the shopping mall to the woods, and the camp is restricted on the other side by the Big Elk Creek, which no longer has bridge access.
In response to a Whig inquiry, one woman who entered the campsite on Wednesday with two men and a young boy put the situation for the homeless population there bluntly.
"The new fence is going to force us out, " she said, declining an interview.
This summer, Elkton Mayor Rob Alt met with John Peters, director of retail operations, construction and facility maintenance for The Cordish Companies, and pushed for assistance in helping combat issues of loitering and crime in the shopping center and the town.
"I have to say Cordish (Companies) stepped up," Alt said at the last town board of commissioners meeting, briefly mentioning new security measures by the company. Alt was unavailable for further comment due to a Thanksgiving vacation.
While the town made Peters aware of a "loitering problem at many places within the town" and the fact that officials had just passed a loitering ordinance, he's been looking to deal with a number of criminal issues on the property for many of the 36 years he's been with the company, he said.
"(The town of Elkton) didn't have to push us too hard. We're looking to provide a safe atmosphere for the tenants and provide assistance for the town to do their job," he said, adding that such fences are "not unusual" for shopping centers.
The town will also have access to the double-wide gates that will be placed on the fence that Cordish hopes to have construction started on by Jan. 1.
New security measures will also include a roving security patrol (full-time during the day and intermittent patrol during evening hours) and a security camera system mimicking that in place at the company's Northeast Plaza shopping center, where security guards will also be patrolling. Several "no trespassing" signs will also be posted around the property, and Peters is looking to move the current bus stop from its location in front of the Acme grocery store.
The Elkton Police Department will have access to the live camera footage, said Peters, adding it will be "very detailed" footage from a 1080-pixel camera. The non-uniformed officers from a private security company will drive their own personal vehicle with a magnetic sign and a rotating yellow light for recognition and visibility by the general public.
"We have a policy that they are not armed, and we tell them they are security — not first responders, not police — so the main thing that they're supposed to do is observe and document," said Peters, of the guards which began patrolling the mall about two weeks ago. Guards are also to call 911 in case of an emergency.
Some who work within the shopping center are glad to hear of the changes.
Brittany Becker, a 26-year-old stylist with the Hair Cuttery, said she often feels unsafe leaving work at night.
"I hope (the new security measures) work, but I'm sure people will still find a way to get back (behind the fence)," she said.
Becker said often she's heard customers complain of loiterers in the shopping center, and that her business had to place a "no public restroom" sign up after a woman began to use it as a place to clean herself.
The Elkton Police Department said they have not had any complaints of drug activity in the area behind the shopping center.
"Homelessness in itself is not a crime. Just because they're homeless doesn't mean they're connected," said EPD spokesman Capt. Joe Zurolo, adding he's often had the role of "educating people" on distinguishing between criminal elements and homelessness. "People want to link them up, as if homelessness and crime were one in the same, and it's not."
On Wednesday, as groups removed firewood left over from the brush that was cleared to make way for the fence, the area looked a far cry from the way it did just a few weeks ago.
"We removed five, 30-yard dumpsters full of trash.... Over time people have decided they could drop off their cats, or a couch, here. Sometimes within the course of a year I have to remove 150 to 200 cars from our shopping centers. And that's at $3 per car that I have to pay, because I can't haul it myself," said Peters, adding the new security measures will assist with such issues.
He estimates that the new fence will mean that, come spring, he will have about 15 dumpsters worth of trash to remove from behind the fence.
"I've offered some women and men who go back there and help the homeless use one of my 30-yard dumpsters," he said. "I have rakes, shovels and gloves available for anyone who wants to go back there and clean up the park."
Currently, a walk through the park shows piles of trash strewn around. Peters said it's only gotten worse over the years. While directly behind the Acme, Cordish property extends about 50 feet into the woods. They also own the Holly Hall property and all of the woods from there to the Big Elk Creek, as well as about 1,000 to 1,080 feet extending into the woods behind the Kmart, according Peters.
"I've been trying to nip things in to the butt, trying to correct things for 30 years. Sometimes I've had it under control, but in all reality it's the worst I've ever seen it," he said, pointing to the fact that Maryland's rate of homelessness exceeds the national average and it continues to grow exponentially.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's latest report, homelessness in the state increased by 7 percent between 2014 and 2015. However, homelessness overall in the country had decreased 2 percent between 2013 and 2014 and by 11 percent since 2007 — as well as a 32 percent reduction since 2007 for those in unsheltered locations. Latest tallies from Cecil County Health Department list the county's homeless at 191, down from 195 the previous year.
While Peters said he still will allow those who feed the feral cats to do so, he said he hopes the new actions taken will diminish the population.
"Let's say if one of those cats scratched someone back there, who is going to be sued? They're going to come after us," he said.
While the Chesapeake Feline Association, which recently received a $25,000 grant to use a procedure called trap-neuter-return, or TNR, to assist with the population in Elkton, Peters would prefer to not have them returned.
"While the feeding of cats is a good thing, you have to understand that when you put feed out, you're providing feed for other creatures that you don't want to have to deal with,” he said.
CFA President Dawn Cowhey said she worries about the cats being "trapped on the other side of the fence and starving to death" and plans to secure a meeting with Cordish upper management to discuss the merits of the TNR program.
"It's an unfortunate situation for the cats," she said. "The fact is I have this grant money and I'm working diligently to make sure no additional breeding goes on.”
While Peters said he also cares for the plight of the people who live in camps behind the shopping center, he said he remains steadfast in his belief that he must tackle the new security measures for the benefit of the company and its customers.
"I do not feel it's our obligation to provide sanctuary for the cats or for homeless people. I am very sympathetic with what they're going through, and I think they're professional and kind, and I informed them that if they see fit or if the town sees fit to allow them on public property, that's fine," he said.
Patricia Marks, executive director of Meeting Ground, an Elkton-based nonprofit that serves the homeless, said a meeting with Peters and town officials was unable to come to a conclusion about how to address helping the area's homeless. It was Marks who notified the population that the fence was going to be put up.
"Our position is people ought to get housed, it isn't about maintaining settlements," she said, adding she had requested funds from the Cordish company to assist in setting up housing for the people behind the mall.
"(They) said it wouldn't be a wise expenditure. I think they're sympathetic and empathetic to the plight of the homeless, but all of us are hard-pressed to find a quick and easy solution to what is a long-term problem," she said.
While some, like sex offenders or those with pets, are precluded from staying in the rotating shelter, Marks said that for others it simply is an issue of comfort.
"Some honestly can't deal with close proximity to that many people. How many of us would want to sleep in a room with 34 other people?" she said.
The Cecil County Health Department, which works alongside Meeting Ground in assisting residents with finding shelter, has been monitoring the situation and will continue to work alongside those like Marks as the population comes to terms with the fence, according to spokesman Gregg Bortz.
While Cappucino said she has utilized Meeting Ground's rotating shelter system in Elkton in the past, and receives food through different organizations in town, she plans to find a new place to reside outdoors when the fence is built around her current camp.
"I'm gonna walk up and down every highway, and find another part of the woods to sleep in," she said, before adding her worries about the impending winter weather. "It's not gonna be good. This winter's gonna be a real bad one: hail the size of golf balls."