Safe At Home: The Dream Team’s Study of Housing Unit Takeovers (HUTs) in Toronto

For the Dream Team, Toronto
October 24, 2017

Safe At Home was written by the Dream Team: a peer based non­profit organization dedicated to advocacy, education, and research in the areas of supportive housing, mental health, discrimination, and stigma. This study investigates “Housing Unit Takeovers,” or HUTs: situations in which vulnerable tenants are forced to accommodate unwanted guests in their homes. During HUTs, vulnerable tenants allow people into their homes to fulfill unmet social, economic, and personal needs. In the process, the tenant is threatened physically, financially, or psychologically. People of all genders, races, and age groups are vulnerable to HUTs (Butera, Crime Prevention Ottawa, 2013).  Similarly, people of all races, genders and age groups perpetrate takeovers. Such housing predators tend to be manipulative family members or drug dealers. Often, these predators exploit the tenant’s vulnerabilities, such as addiction, isolation, disability, or poor health. The ultimate outcome is that the targeted tenant’s housing is jeopardized while they are made to feel uncomfortable and unsafe in their own homes. In some cases, HUTs can leave the targeted tenant homeless (Dream Team, 2017).

Some Dream Team members have lived in supportive and social housing where they experienced HUTs themselves. Having survived a predator’s use of drugs and money, and sometimes threat of physical harm, to infiltrate and eventually take over their households, these Dream Team members are uniquely situated to give voice to the lived realities of HUTs in Toronto today. These voices and the voices of other people with lived experience of HUTs, were central to the research carried out in the Safe At Home Project.

Supported by a grant from the City of Toronto, the Dream Team began work on the Safe At Home project in April 2016, using a community-based participatory research model. We began conceptualizing our project using some of the key terms and ideas put forward by Crime Prevention Ottawa (CPO 2013), and acknowledge their ongoing advisory support during the research process. While we concentrated on people in social and supportive housing by the terminal date of the project in June 2017, our research had intersected with regular market and non-supportive housing, and it now provides a fairly good idea of the extent to which HUTs occur in different parts of the GTA. It is also important to note that during our consultations and public roundtables, we found out that almost all housing providers know about HUTS and that most governing bodies were starting to look at them. An interesting fact is that in the absence of a cogent shared definition or measuring technique, no one actually knows how many HUTS happen, though we know they happen in all parts of the GTA and in all types of housing.

Thankfully then, HUTs seem to be getting more attention but have been underexplored in scholarly research and the mainstream media. This means that the narratives surrounding HUTs are very much underdeveloped. We were able to access two prior types of coverage. The first was mostly in the press in the UK, where HUTs were known as “cuckooing,” in reference to the cuckoo bird’s tendency to steal other birds’ nests, and the second was the important research carried out by Crime Prevention Ottawa (Butera, 2013). Although these sources acknowledge systemic issues that contribute to HUTs, the main thrust of their narratives is that the first place we must look to prevent takeovers is the tenants’ “inability” to protect themselves from housing predators. For example, Butera (2013) introduces the notion of a “complicit victim,” proposing that tenants who endure HUTs at the hands of their drug dealers are, to some degree, responsible for those takeovers by virtue of the choice they made to let people into their home. In this compelling narrative, as we understand it, the tenant is at the center of the problem and the solutions.

While The Dream Team Safe At Home Project recognizes the practical need to identify the tenant’s role and potentially protective responses as a part of the problem, our study revisits these assertions very critically. Safe At Home recognizes that HUTs are underpinned by a far more complex system of players. Namely, tenants, housing providers, law enforcement officials, lawmakers, policy designers and many others are all individual parts of a broken system that facilitates HUTs. We offer an alternative “axis of intervention” where HUTs are the dependent variable – at the center of the debates – and tenants, along with police, service providers and so on, all play roles as intervening variables that contribute to make HUTs possible.

We cannot stress strongly enough that focusing solely on tenant-based solutions is a distraction. Even though a tenant might make a bad decision to let a predator into their lives, we found that many tenants do not even recognize how some of their characteristics—including the aforementioned issues of addiction, isolation, and poor health—make them more vulnerable to HUTs. We question what the word responsibility means in the context of people who face a number of challenges that are not common outside of social and supportive housing, and from whose perspectives, the right kinds of supports do not exist.  

Many tenant respondents told us in surveys and interviews that they had never even thought of their experiences as takeovers, though, after participating in the research and seen in a new light, they felt they had been in takeovers before.  While many saw the obvious connection between their decisions and the takeovers they had endured, many others felt they had literally had no choices in the past, wondered what choices they had in the present. These individuals overwhelmingly expressed that they lacked the supports or were not aware of the resources that might have helped them avoid or escape a housing predator. Moreover, we have argued that by focusing on the role tenants play in facilitating predators’ behaviour, existing press coverage and research has yet to delve deeply into the varied and very problematic systemic variables that contribute to HUTs, such as decaying infrastructure, a lack of effective social supports, or legal definitions to support enforcement against predators.

By exploring the patterns and trends that tend to characterize HUTs in Toronto, Safe At Home is part of the foundation for forthcoming strategies that will reduce and prevent them. Amongst a number of important findings, in our final report, and our presentation at CAEH 2017, we discuss tenant and law enforcement perceptions of barriers to HUT interventions, key behavioural and social indicators of HUTS and potential HUTs, strategies for preventing and intervening in HUTs, a potentially useful HUT housing prevention program, and the immediate need for the formation of an interagency council devoted to dealing with HUTs.

Our findings are based on the results of 56 resident surveys, 24 resident interviews, 146 non-resident surveys, 2 staff interviews, and focus group discussions. We also conducted two roundtable discussions and an open dialogue through the City of Toronto’s Specialized Interdivisional Enhanced Response (SPIDER) program. Most importantly, however, Safe At Home prioritizes the voices of those who have lived through HUTs themselves. Thus, the findings, themes, analyses, and recommendations made here aim to bridge the classic divides between systemic actors like law enforcement officials and institutional housing providers on the one hand, and vulnerable individuals with lived experiences in these settings on the other.

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This research is part of this year's National Conference on Ending Homelessness. For program details, see conference.caeh.ca. 

Eric Weissman has been studying homelessness, mental health and addictions in Canadian and US cities since 1999.  In recovery from drugs and episodic homelessness for almost 21 years, he is well familiar with the difficulty people have when trying to find and keep safe and stable housing. 

His work began in tent camps and shantytowns like Toronto’s Tent City, which was the subject of his film, “Subtext-real stories”. He lived for a short time at Dignity Village Oregon, the first legal shantytown in US history, and the main site for his dissertation fieldwork.  His work is comparative and critical.  He looks at the provisions that make a range of housing possibilities, from Housing First to Shantytowns, which he calls Intentional Homeless Communities, feasible in the context of widespread homelessness in North American cities.

He uses photos video and visual elicitation practices to understand the narratives impacting how social policies are designed, experienced and critiqued.  His work is a  form of community based critical and pragmatic ethnography that asks stakeholders of various kinds in the areas of housing, homelessness, mental health and addictions, “ how do you see the world, and how might you change it?”

After completing his PhD in 2014, he was a visiting scholar at the University of Texas Medical Branch, Institute For the Medical Humanities, where he led two graduate courses in critical ethnography and narrative communities and worked with community health practitioners in Houston and Galveston.  In 2015 he was sessional faculty member in Sociology at the College of New Caledonia in Prince George.   Currently he lives in Toronto. He is Principal Investigator in a critical ethnography of the Di Pede Residences, a supportive housing community operated by WoodGreen and Fife House.  He is lead researcher on the Safe At Home Project for the Dream Team (Houselink), which looks the issue of housing unit takeovers by drug traffickers in Toronto.

His first book, Dignity in Exile, tales of struggle and hope from a modern American shantytown (Exile; 2012) is a public ethnography that introduces people to that important community.   His forthcoming book, Tranquility on the Razor’s Edge (Rock’s Mill’s Press; Autumn 2016) offers a critical examination of his dissertation research and the increasing role intentional communities like tent camps and emergency rest areas are playing in cities across North America.  He argues that dominant narratives about deserving and undeserving character inflect our expectations and rules about how to use city spaces and what kinds of housing are acceptable.  There is a certain narrative inevitability in the stories we learn and then tell ourselves to make sense of social problems, and this inevitability must be addressed before any real change can occur.

Eric Weissman Ph.D. (2014, Concordia University Special Individualized Programs – Social Sciences.
http://storytelling.concordia.ca/content/eric-weissman-wins-cagsumi-award

2014 Canadian Association of Graduate Studies Distinguished Dissertation Awardee in the Arts, Humanities and Social Science.
http://www.cags.ca/news16.php#.V17sb467GvI

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