“I had a soft spot for them,” says Mary, her empathy evident, even wearing a mask, in a Zoom meeting Thursday. “I thought I was doing something good.”
Within 48 hours of letting the desperate couple stay at her one-bedroom apartment, it had all fallen apart. Beached on the sectional couch, he was drinking rubbing alcohol; she was strung out on pills. Not only did they “invite” themselves into Mary’s Centretown unit, but they also had no plans to leave.
Later, they would discover the bed bugs in the visitors’ clothing and a warrant for his arrest.
On April Fool’s Day in 2018, Mary (not her real name) and her husband were victims of a “home takeover,” a little-talked about menace that happens dozens of times in Ottawa annually and targets the vulnerable and elderly.
Numbers are hard to come by, but frontline workers say it’s likely that every day in this city a marginalized tenant is being preyed upon by scheming friends and hangers-on, creepy relatives or outright criminals looking for a safe base of operation.
Crime Prevention Ottawa has just submitted a report to city council on a multi-year effort to combat the problem, which executive director Nancy Worsfold considers among its proudest achievements in 15 years.
Since 2013, the tiny organization has managed to spark 157 training sessions, which in turn alerted 3,500 workers to the “morally complex” problem of home takeovers.
Worsfold said the effort grew out of the group’s work in vulnerable neighbourhoods and the realization that much of the criminal activity was focused in a small number of addresses, sometimes home to a revolving cast.
“When you untangle the problems there, it is really complicated,” she explained. “There is negative activity there, but it wasn’t necessarily under the control of the legitimate tenant.”
Indeed, at its worst, units were being taken over by drug traffickers or gangs as bases of operation, with dope sometimes supplied to the tenants as hush payments. The consequences could be horrendous: all-night noise and traffic, assaults, gun play, even homicides.
But this was merely the iceberg tip. Beneath the obvious criminal activity, there were stories of the lonely elderly being squatted by conniving relatives, recovering addicts being swamped by users and their friends and the mentally challenged who could be victims at home at every turn.
Crime Prevention first commissioned a literature review of the problem in 2012 and discovered that not only was there little research done in Canada, but also not even common language to describe the issue. (It is often called “cuckooing” in countries like England.)
Before long, a committee of 16 groups was assembled, everyone from the Ottawa Police Service to the Canadian Mental Health Association to Ottawa Community Housing and the Ottawa-Carleton Association for Persons with Developmental Disabilities.
The latter association took on co-ordination of the project.
Anne Cole, a supervisor in community support for OCAPDD, says takeovers often start innocently, with one neighbour trying to help another in a sudden jam, like the loss of housing or income.
When negative consequences escalate, she said, the tenant can feel embarrassed because they initially agreed to the arrangement.
“Home takeover is often not reported and that’s the biggest problem.”
Added Worsfold: “People are deeply ashamed of these situations and they’re complicated because they feel responsible for inviting the person in.”
For the same reasons, victims may be reluctant to turn to the police — especially if the home has become a crime haven — or simply have no idea where to find help.
But Crime Prevention’s work is changing that as a series of videos, workshops and printed materials have been distributed or seen by hundreds of frontline workers, including police. Most major local organizations that work in public housing, elder abuse, with the disabled and the mentally ill have been looped in.
In Mary’s case, she spoke to her husband’s caseworker about two days after the unwanted guests arrived from a unit across the hall, where they had been abusing the generosity of a relative for months.
The caseworker alerted Cole, who hustled over to meet the couple in a coffee shop. Upon hearing the story, the caseworker called police. All it took was some prodding from the officers and the unwanted couple departed.
“We needed help to do that,” said Mary, then one of Cole’s clients. “I didn’t know how to deal with a situation like that. I was scared.”
Crime Prevention Ottawa now feels it has equipped frontline workers with an understanding of the problem and some tools to bring about a fix.
“To me,” said Worsfold, “truly affecting the lives of vulnerable victims is important.”
Like in Mary’s case, where all it took was the right push, at the right time, to restore house and home.
To contact Kelly Egan, please call 613-291-6265 or email firstname.lastname@example.org