Housing stability is a complicated topic. There is very little agreement on what stability actually means. For some, supportive housing stability might mean that people with historically erratic tenancy and eviction patterns come to remain housed in one place for a longer period of time; for others it might mean that their quality of life in housing has improved sufficiently to begin to work again, regain lost relationships or successfully manage health. Regardless of what stability might ideally mean, we can all agree that stability is a good thing and we want to make it the common experience for people. If this does not happen, the result is pretty simple: people come to live in precarious housing situations and we know that many of these people will end up in some kind of homelessness.

One of the most serious threats to housing stability is a phenomenon called “Cuckooing” in the U.K., and involves the commandeering of a home by unwanted parties, often for the purpose of drug trafficking. There is surprisingly little in the way of research directly linked to this phenomenon anywhere that I could find. In fact, in Canada, only Crime Prevention Ottawa (2013) has produced a study for the rest of us to look at.

In the CPO study, the problem is discussed as Housing Unit Takeovers (CPO, 2013:1). In the Ottawa study, it was discovered that approximately ¾ of front line workers surveyed had encountered the problem with their clients, some as often as ten times. No one actually knows how many takeovers have occurred in Ottawa or anywhere else because this data is particularly difficult to obtain, yet the CPO study and preliminary research for a similar study in Toronto suggest that the problem is not restricted to social or supportive housing, but occurs frequently in regular market and privately owned housing as well. In fact, in the latter categories, we have fairly little chance of really knowing how vast the problem might be. There is more urgency to address the issue in publicly supported housing because, for the most part, the most vulnerable tenants are found in this sector.

Housing Unit takeovers occur when housing predators use drugs, violence, sex, economic and social supports to manipulate tenants into accommodating unwanted occupations of their housing space. Takeovers are widespread in Toronto where The Dream Team, partly funded by the City of Toronto Community Safety Initiative, has begun exploratory research into the problem. “The Dream Team began as a group of consumer/survivors and family members dedicated to demonstrating the life-altering benefits of supportive housing for people living with mental illness, while reducing mental health stigma". Today, the Dream Team is a consumer/survivor group and they operate out of their sponsoring agency, Houselink Community Homes. 

The current project is called the Safe At Home Project (SAH). They are currently looking for resident and non-resident participants for their surveys and interviews. In pre-study discussions with frontline staff and staff focus groups, 100% (N=approximately 15) admitted to experiencing takeovers in the lives of their clients, and additionally, more troubling, to feeling absolutely helpless about how to deal with the problem.

Takeovers happen because many tenants are vulnerable. Vulnerability is also a difficult concept to define. Vulnerability is most obvious in the following tenant groups: people who are poor; people with physical and mental illnesses; single working mothers; the elderly, and addicts, including alcoholics and sex addicts. The nature of these particular dependencies will be addressed in further posts about this research. But here, it is important to recognize just as CPO had suggested, that vulnerability is really a way of saying that certain people are more likely to make bad decisions about who they let into their homes and their lives when the supports to address or reduce the harm caused by having unmet real needs are not present.

Because of this propensity to “let” people in, CPO and even preliminary research for Safe At Home, imagines a “complicit victim” (CPO, 2013:2). Those optics look bad. They suggest a tenant who “wants” the takeover to happen. This is not true. Even though the tenant might knowingly let a drug dealer use his or her apartment to deal out of in exchange for drugs, this should in no way suggest that the complicit victim is to be blamed for the result. In fact, one of the reasons that so few people come forward to discuss the problem is they fear being blamed – and it is this blame the victim discourse that stands in the way of “Outting” the issue properly.

Takeovers are not simple either. In one case discussed by frontline staff in the SAH, an elderly man is a victim of takeovers because of the complex nature of his needs. First he is elderly and poor, lonely and self-medicates, and suffers a developmental issue, so he is a perfect storm of sorts where his multiple vulnerabilities make him an easy target. He had taken to letting strippers from a downtown Toronto club use his apartment after their shifts. According to this elderly man, they would provide him drugs, sex and use his apartment to entertain their “johns”. But he wanted it to stop. After some counseling and discussion, he had discussed how he wanted to stop these people from bothering him, but he had become fearful that when he left his unit they would retaliate. So he let the problem continue and to date, there really is no practical intervention available, except to perhaps involve Police Services. But I think we can all see where that might be a problem for someone who is fearful to begin with. So one of the key issues with these takeovers is that once they start, they seem impossible to end amicably.

There are more consequences than merely being afraid, CPO sites illegal activities in the home, violence, abuse, theft, financial exploitation and more. Once again the end game of most concern to me as a homelessness researcher: takeovers often lead to eviction and a return to unstable housing or homelessness. What we need to do is really understand the size and shape of the issue before throwing in the towel.

Once again, the anatomy of a takeover will be discussed in a subsequent blog. However, with this seemingly implacable problem, the only way to really address the issue is to prevent it from happening in the first place. To some degree we can try to filter out predators from entering housing spaces.   But this is very problematic. So we also need to help vulnerable people understand when they are in the midst of a lifestyle that could lead to a takeover. One of the things CPO had done very well was to produce a series of practical videos and toolkits for advocates, tenants and others to use to inform and to prevent takeovers. It is this goal that drives the SAH as well.

Over the next 8 months, Safe At Home will be using interviews, surveys, public addresses and focus groups to explore the scope and types of housing unit takeovers in a sample of Toronto’s housing community. Special care has been taken to ensure the anonymity of participants. The goal is to devise a toolkit for tenants and housing providers and to help the city formally address this hidden but widespread problem. If you are interested in participating please do not hesitate to contact SAH.

Safe At Home Housing Unit Takeover Task Force

Lead researcher - Eric Weissman Ph.D. at EricWe@houselink.on.ca (ph. 416.516.1422 Ext. 251)
Dream Team Coordinator - Joanna Pawelkiewicz at coordinator@thedreamteam.ca (ph.416.516.1422 Ext. 262).