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Needle and the damage done: Drugs in public housing

in Community/Poverty Reduction by

For the last five months the Lindsay Advocate has been talking with concerned residents at a few different community housing units in the City of Kawartha Lakes about the issues of drug-dealing in their communities. Several residents were interviewed and all of them, out of fear for their own safety, requested anonymity. Residents were interviewed in person and given the opportunity to provide written submissions. The City of Kawartha Lakes and both police services in the City were asked to comment.

I am sitting at the kitchen table in a social housing apartment with Carl, Estelle, Dorothy and Jack. Carl’s unit looks like it could be in a design magazine. The decor is stunning; the attention to detail clearly demonstrating a pride of place. I find myself wishing that my rental house could look this nice. But I’m not here to get design tips. I’m here to hear the stories and struggles these people are having with active drug dealing in their complex.

The stories — and the frequency with which they happen — seem overwhelming. Overdoses. People jumping out of windows. Johns and tweaked-out junkies looking to score, pacing furtively around the complex. Strangers coming to the wrong door or wrong yard looking for their dealer. Old, creepy ‘johns’ coming in and out of the complex. Being asked if they want to buy drugs as they are taking their kids to the school bus in the morning. People shooting-up in cars. Discarded needles, mere steps away from where their kids should be playing.

In April of 2019, residents of one complex arranged a meeting with housing to discuss the issues of drug dealing and prostitution. The City organized a meeting to discuss the issues. The meeting was held on a weekday morning. Jack, Estelle, Dorothy and Carl could not attend because they work full time.

***

I asked Hope Lee, manager of housing for the City of Kawartha Lakes for comment. Lee stresses that “drugs and drug dealing is a societal issue overall, not just in affordable or community housing.”

That is an important point. One would have to live under a rock or be blinded with classist hatred to think that community housing is the only place where there is drug dealing. But according to the residents, these issues happen at levels above societal averages. Unfortunately, getting actual statistics from the Kawartha Lakes Police Service (KLPS) would have required a freedom of information request and “a considerable fee” so we cannot statistically verify such claims. Jack says at the moment that there are only four known units selling drugs in his 50-unit complex. “The problem is, we get rid of one and two more move in,” he adds.

Lee does agree there is a problem though: “Drug dealing does occur in KLH communities as in many other communities. KLH takes considerable concern with it. It is certainly not regularly occurring in all communities where we provide housing but happens more often than we would like. It spirals into many aspects of life when it does occur; the vulnerable are preyed upon, the entire community experiences impacts including increased traffic and at some points even result in violent incidents occurring.”

***

“Tell him about the chainsaw incident,” says Carl. Estelle goes on to describe something that should be part of a fictional scary movie, not in a CKL neighbourhood of families and kids. The details are a little confusing, and could not be independently verified. But the story involves the alleged goings-on at one of the units these residents are convinced is a drug den. After hours of a loud altercation, a woman chased two men in a car with a large, running chainsaw, attacking the car with it. This happened around Noon. A couple hours later, someone high on drugs at the same unit fell out a second floor window.

Jack then plays me a recording he made of a neighbour freaking out on some sort of drug. I can’t describe the sound other than to say it was demonic. “The screaming went on for hours,” he says. While he’s in his phone, he shows me pictures of vomit and urine on his front steps.

Jack says that he’s lived in community housing for 20 years and he’s never seen things this bad. Estelle actually moved from another complex because of drug dealing and prostitution only to find the same issues at her new complex. The stress is starting to affect all of them.

“This affects my quality of life. My health has been poor the last seven to eight months. I’m always scared. My nerves are bad and I feel stressed out,” says Dorothy. “My home was once a happy safe home, now it’s ‘lock the doors as soon as you get inside.’ We don’t go out after dark alone. We are trapped in our own homes.”

***

Lee explains that “KLH Housing Corporation houses many of the communities most vulnerable or higher needs population, those often not welcome in the private market. KLH Housing is a landlord with a social focus and a mission to provide good quality and safe housing with a priority focus on low income, the homeless and people with special needs.” She says that KLH operates within a ‘Housing First, Harm Reduction and an Eviction Prevention approach.’

***

Buddy takes me around a different complex in the city and matter-of-factly points to the units where you can buy drugs. “There’s crack in that one. That one down there has oxys sometimes but usually purple heroin. And everyone knows there is no such thing as purple heroin. That’s just fentanyl. That guy got raided last month but he’s back.”

“A guy in that unit OD’d a couple months ago,” he adds, nonchalantly. Buddy is on ODSP and has, much earlier in life, struggled with addiction. “This is a hard place to stay clean.”

***

I ask Lee how KLH Housing deals with complaints of drug dealing. She explains they turn to the police, noting that drug dealing is a criminal matter of which the police have responsibility for. They also assess the situation because sometimes a vulnerable tenant can be taken advantage of by a drug dealer, forcing that person to use their unit.

KLH also uses the Landlord and Tenant Board process to deal with this issue. Without charges being filed, this process can drag on for several months and require tribunal appearances for witness residents.

The KLH encourages residents to always call the police and not take matters into their own hands. They further suggest that they follow-up by reporting to the KLHS office. When I relate this to Carl, he audibly sighs. “In the last year and a half I have called the police and housing about 50 times. Of course we are happy to help but we are the ones that have to deal with it.”

In that April, 2019 meeting held by KLH, residents were advised in a PowerPoint presentation that complaining that “a tenant having 30 short term visitors in a 12 hour period will not be sufficient” for getting a hearing at the Landlord and Tenant Tribunal. When Estelle provided pictures of a drug deal happening in her complex, she was told by a housing staff member that ‘they could be selling Tupperware.’ The pictures didn’t show the drugs. They just showed a known drug dealer selling to a known drug user. And anyone who watches police procedurals on television knows that’s not enough proof.

***

As KLH notes, drug-dealing is a police matter so I contacted both police services that service the CKL. PC Carrie Lanning, media relations officer of the KL OPP explained that in 2017, the OPP created the Community Street Crime Units “that operate at the detachment level to investigate community level drug and property crimes. The focused enforcement can assist with increased disruption of the local street level crime.” The OPP uses a community policing model which stresses engagement, education and mobilization of the community to address crime. Lanning adds that “frontline officers routinely conduct foot patrols in the communities within assigned zones, including walking through the hallways and common areas of community housing buildings.”

Sgt. David Murtha, administrative sergeant of the KLPS says that his force “believes in the four pillar approach to addressing drug use in our community; 1. Harm Reduction, 2. Prevention and Education, 3. Treatment and 4. Justice and Enforcement.” The KLPS is working in partnership with an agency in Lindsay that offers support to those struggling with addiction. Explains Murtha, “One day each week, a dedicated officer accompanies an addiction counsellor into the community to offer support and services to those affected by addiction. This support could involve liaising with other service providers to secure housing, health care, mental health treatment, etc., assisting a person to enter drug treatment, distributing naloxone kits or addressing any other needs that are identified.”

Such progressive approaches to policing should be commended. But that approach is only as strong as the societal policies and programs that underpin it. Increased access to comprehensive addiction treatment, supportive housing for people with addictions, creative approaches to sentencing of non-violent drug offenders, increased mental health resources, addressing the root causes of both poverty, mental illness and addiction: all of these are needed for this approach to work. Without these supports, it is just a repeating cycle.

“The cops are great but they can’t do anything,” says one resident. “I’ve watched them take someone into custody in the morning and drop them off here at night. And then it happens all over. Sometimes the very same night.”

***

The recently passed provincial omnibus Bill 108 contains changes to the Housing Services Act that would allow a tenant (in this case KLH) to refuse to rehouse a household based on a previous eviction for a serious criminal offence. Lee notes that this is only after an eviction but she would welcome that change. It is true this might address a certain number of situations but one could suggest that without increasing other supports, this could lead to more addiction-related homelessness — which is by no means an improvement for community safety. But it would help people like Carl and Estelle.

When asked what else could help KLH address this problem, Lee stated that streamlining the Landlord and Tenant Tribunal process would be helpful. She also advocates for increased resources for the police, noting, “KLH has an excellent working partnership with the police [but] they only have so many resources available to them.”

For its part, the KLPS is trying to address this situation. As Murtha explains, “Until recently, the City of Kawartha Lakes Police Service has had one detective constable dedicated to drug enforcement investigations. However, we are in the process of adding a second investigator to our Criminal Investigation Branch to assist in this area.” Murtha notes that the paperwork for obtaining warrants is time-intensive. He adds the police are out there, noting “undercover police operations, surveillance and other forms of information gathering during drug investigations are not always obvious to the community.”

***

In the meantime people like Dorothy live in fear, afraid to let their kids play outside. She points to a unit under construction. “Maybe someone from housing or city council or MPP Laurie Scott should come live here for a month and live in our complex, see what we see and feel the fear that we fear.”

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A graduate of the University of Toronto, Trevor Hutchinson is a songwriter, writer and bookkeeper. He serves as Contributing Editor at The Lindsay Advocate. He lives with his fiancee and their five kids in Glenarm, Kawartha Lakes.

1 Comment

  1. I’m always amazed that people with no income can afford a drug habit. Our (people who work) tax dollars should be used to investigate who is living in public housing and why they are there. Is there a reson they can’t get a job? Are they handicapped? If they are physically fit, but chose a life style that includes drug use, lets get them cleaned up and sober, and get them a job. Coddling them doesn’t work. And I for one, am sick of seeing my hard earned tax dollars being spent to feed and house people who are young and pysically fit, but decide working just ins’t for them. If I have to pay any more of my hard earned money out to government programs, I will need to apply for community housing soon.

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