On the surface, the Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods Act is a fine piece of legislation. It essentially empowers citizens in their communities to do something about brothels, crack-houses, gambling rings and other types of seedy operations in their neighbourhoods. Police then take this information, assess the situation, and if evidence warrants, they get a court order to evict the tenants of these crime houses.
“Shut ’em down,” the mob cries.
Shutting down known crime houses, informed by the people who know best about the goings-on in their communities sounds great… no? But what if in the end, there are no criminal charges laid against the tenants of the crime houses being evicted? Certainly criminals live in houses where criminal activities are taking place… right? Certainly if a judge orders that tenants be removed from their homes, the tenants are facing criminal charges for their criminal activities… right? Certainly the idea is not to shut down crime houses and then disperse criminals elsewhere in other people’s communities… right?
So why is it then, that today there is a man in Cape Breton living in his car with his dogs, while his wife and one of his sons stays with friends, and his other two sons seek help for their addictions? According to CBC NS this morning, a family was removed from their home under the Safer Communities Act. The windows and doors boarded up for 90 days because of neighbour complaints of criminal activities taking place in the house. No one living in the house was charged with a criminal offense… no one living in the house was carted off to jail… no one living in the house was able to face their accusers in a court of law… and denied the right to even appeal the decision.
It is alarming.
Because while the Safer Communities Act has done much to shut down brothels and crack-houses and gambling rings in low-income neighbourhoods based on community reporting of criminal activities, how is it that making this family homeless will make the community safer?
I’m even willing to accept that criminal activity was indeed taking place in this guy’s house. That the complaints registered against this family by their neighbours were valid. That the consequences of having two adult sons suffering from addictions disrupted and unsettled the community. Given that I am not party to the documents which resulted in the court order I cannot make a decision on this either way. But it sort of sounds like this guy was a victim himself. Being a hostage to addiction in his own home.
What concerns me the most about this story, and the possible precedent that it sets, is that the burden of proof is reduced into some sort of perverted community-based panopticon. A family is sentanced to become homeless for 90 days because their neighbours didn’t like the kind of company they kept.
Perhaps I am over-reacting. Perhaps there is some piece of condemning evidence against this guy or other members of his family which is so compelling that such drastic measures were required. But it seems to me that if that were the case, there would be criminal charges of some description laid.
The kicker in this story is that the accused does not even have the right to appeal the decision. Even if he did, he cannot afford a lawyer to represent his family’s rights.
How is it that we can allow a family in this province, in the 21st century, suffer the consequences for crimes that were not committed? How is it that our own rule of law has allowed the tyranny of the majority to trump the personal security of a citizen? How is it that tossing a family suspected (but not convicted) of criminal activity out of their home for 90 days results in creating a safer community?
Addiction is a nasty thing. It is a mental health condition, fed by the desperation and hopelessness of poverty. It produces all kinds of unsavory and criminal activity in our communities and neighborhoods. But is our best strategy really to simply shut down the buildings without any plan to deal with the people inside of them?
I guess it’s just a good thing that 1) this guy didn’t have any kids under the age of 15 who were also rendered homeless by this bizzaro situation and 2) the curfew law is not yet in place… poor bugger would be facing a $500 fine everyday for the next 90 days, until they were allowed to go back into their home.
We need to seriously rethink the way we approach law and order around here.