Without support services in place, forcibly closing crack houses and other illegal operations could actually create more criminals and victims, say community groups.
The government’s proposed safer communities and neighbourhoods legislation would use civil law to bust crack houses, prostitution dens and booze cans, and evict those living on site.
The approach shows promise, but is not without its problems, especially given the territory’s chronic lack of support programs, community groups told officials during a meeting at the High Country Inn on Tuesday.
“It’s a positive step,” said Charlotte Hrenchuk, co-ordinator of the Yukon Status of Women Council.
“The legislation might give government the teeth they need to close those places down, but if these people get evicted where are they going to go?”
Hrenchuk has heard stories of women living in unsafe environments like drug houses.
“One woman told me she found a bag of crack in the hallway of her apartment building and used needles everywhere — they’re full of unsavoury characters,” said Hrenchuk.
And she’s heard stories of vulnerable women trading sex for a place to stay, food and drugs — a social phenomenon dubbed survival sex.
These women are already being used and they will only be re-victimized if evicted from their homes without the support — shelter, food and rehabilitation programs — they need.
If evicted, the women may be forced into another bad situation or turn to crime to pay the bills, said Hrenchuk.
The Yukon must expand support programs to deal with the legislation’s fallout before it’s enacted, said Hrenchuk.
Currently, there is a marked shortage of such programs, she added.
“There is a lack of safe, affordable housing in Whitehorse and in the communities,” said Hrenchuk.
“We need a heck of a lot more resources put into alcohol and drug services, through funding, services and facilities, and they need the ability to be creative in their outreach approaches.”
Support is key to stopping the cycle of abuse, said Linda Casson Hare, a former city councillor who has worked in crime prevention in the territory for more than 20 years with organizations like Crime Prevention Yukon.
She told a story of a local man who makes daily visits to a “shooting gallery” in Riverdale to get high.
“If we displace the poor gentleman, who has to get high everyday, we have to have something else in place to support him so he doesn’t end up on the riverbank.”
And a comprehensive social safety net must be developed to stop evicted dealers from being pulled back into the business.
“There are people who have kicked the habit and are struggling to stay clean, but they’re broke,” said Casson Hare. “Then they look at their friends who are still doing drugs and making hundreds of dollars. What benefits are there to staying clean?”
The Yukon’s proposed legislation is based on successful acts drafted in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
This week, the government brought the heads of the provinces’ respective programs to Whitehorse to explain the legislation to Yukoners.
The territory is gathering input and will draft an act that is widely expected to come before the Yukon legislature this spring.
So far, the feedback has been positive. However, some note the legislation deals with the surface social problems, like prostitution and drug abuse, not their roots.
“The last thing we want to do is put women and children on the street,” said Saskatchewan’s executive director of law enforcement services Murray Sawatsky.
Saskatchewan’s program, enacted in 2004, has already resulted in the closing of 69 illegal operations.
Although the province’s legislation does not directly provide support for the evicted people, its Justice department has partnered with organizations that do, like Community Services and the Health department.
“The legislation is just one of the tools in the toolkit,” Sawatsky added.
“We’re not solving the drug problem; we’re not rehabilitating drug dealers, but we’re showing them this type of activity will not be tolerated,” said Manitoba’s public safety investigations’ manager Al Cameron.
Of the 143 operations Manitoba has closed, five have popped up in other locations.
“Even though the problem may move, we don’t take the position that you’re just going to have to live with it. We’ll follow it and we’ll shut it down. That way, the dealers are going to realize that they can’t do business in the province.”
Both provincial laws are similar.
A complaint about illegal activities in a residence will initiate a chain of events that could lead to an eviction.
First, the department does a background check on the property and consults the police for information.
Then investigators watch the place for days to determine if the activities are habitual and show they have an adverse effect on the community.
Because it’s civil legislation, investigators must only prove that it’s more likely than not that the illegal activity is happening — while the criminal code requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Next, the department sends the landowner a warning letter to try and resolve problem informally. If that fails, the government can apply for a community safety order to shut down the property.
In November, Yukon’s legislature voted unanimously to bring forward safer communities and neighbourhoods legislation in its 2006 spring sitting.
“It takes a whole community to deal with these illegal activities and deal with the serious drug problem in Whitehorse and in the communities,” Justice minister John Edzerza said during Monday’s public meeting.
The proposed legislation will help bring safety back to our communities, he said.
Yukon’s Justice department is accepting feedback on the legislation through its website.