The sentencing of a 32-year-old man last Friday raises serious questions about what the Northwest Territories health care system is doing to help homeless people with mental illness caught up in a cycle of petty crime, court and jail.
The man was sentenced for breaking into the Black Knight Pub in Yellowknife with intent to steal booze, thereby violating two probation orders he was under.
Jacob Griep has almost 75 criminal convictions, by the judge's count. In the past year alone, he has been convicted six times of stealing from the Black Knight or violating court orders to stay away from it.
As his long criminal record attests, court orders and charges and even jail time haven't done much to deter Griep. Part of the reason for that is that he's mentally ill — he has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and major depression.
In sentencing Griep to 105 days in jail, Judge Robert Gorin noted: "The criminal court process is a very blunt instrument when it comes to dealing with people who have the problems that Mr. Griep has."
But it seems to be the only process available to Griep.
No word from public guardian's office
According to a report filed in court, while Griep was serving time in jail last August, his caseworker submitted a referral to the Office of the Public Guardian.
The public guardian's job is to help family members or close friends take legal control of people who, due to mental illness, brain injury or other issues, cannot look after themselves. In some cases where there are no family members or close friends available or suitable, the public guardian can become the person's guardian.
In the view of many who know him, Griep is the kind of person the Office of the Public Guardian was created to protect.
When Griep's caseworker didn't hear back from the public guardian for three months, she called to find out what was going on with the referral and was told that it would be up to a year before the file would be reviewed.
No one in the health and social services department, which includes the Office of the Public Guardian, could explain why it takes so long to review a file. So far the department has also been unable to state how many people are under the protection of the public guardian, or even how many people work in the Office of the Public Guardian.
Health Minister Glen Abernethy refused to do an interview for this story.
Situation not unique
The defence lawyer gave a summary of Griep's background: he was born in Churchill, Man., to an alcoholic mother who drank while she was pregnant with him. (Griep has never been assessed to determine whether that caused any brain damage.) He and his brothers suffered physical abuse and neglect as children.
Griep began drinking when he was 13 years old and never made it past Grade 9. Today he is a homeless adult and, as his criminal record suggests, caught in a cycle of police, court, jail.
Griep's situation is not unique among Yellowknife's homeless, or the homeless of other cities. Lydia Bardak of the John Howard Society said the RCMP in Yellowknife deal with others in the same situation every day.
Bardak said, for many in Griep's circumstances, the cycle of getting arrested and charged, going to court, and then going to jail becomes a way of life.
"It's like, 'OK, now I'll go away to jail for a couple of months, then come out again' — it becomes normalized."
She said living on the streets is a precarious way of life for anyone, but particularly so for those with mental illness or brain injuries.
"These individuals that we're talking about are hugely vulnerable, because they are seriously, chronically and multiply disabled, without family supports or strong community supports, and no housing," said Bardak.
"We need to stop expecting police and courts to deal with it. This is a mental health issue. These are people living with trauma...it's always left to the criminal justice system to deal with it because of the failure of health and social services and housing."