Court-imposed 'red zones' separate vulnerable people from social services, say outreach workers
Mary Howlett's been homeless in Victoria since 2003.
"I'm currently just trying to get back on my feet after about 15 years of pretty hardcore addiction, actually," she says.
"I've had some run-ins from the cops in the last couple of years, and that's changed my life a lot."
Mary was arrested a few years ago on a drug trafficking charge. She says she'd sold $10 of heroin to a guy to support her own addiction. That guy turned out to be an undercover police officer.
After spending a couple of months in jail, she was released. But as a condition of her release, the court imposed a one-year "red zone" on her. It restricted her movement. She wasn't allowed to spend time in the neighbourhood where the drug deal happened.
The problem was, the homeless shelter she'd be living in was in that area. So were social services she'd come to rely upon.
"So I couldn't move back to where I had just moved into with all my stuff, nor could I access the welfare office or the methadone clinic, because all those three things were on the block," she says.
"Red zones" are common in Canada. Courts impose them in cities all across the country, typically on recommendations from police officers.
They're similar to restraining orders. They prohibit people from being in certain places, either as a condition of bail or probation. And if they're caught in that place, they can be jailed.
Jack Phillips, a former homeless man and drug user himself, is now an outreach worker in downtown Victoria. He says red zones merely separate vulnerable people from the services they need.
"I've known many people who are red zoned from that neighbourhood because they used foul language" at community centres, he says as he points out the typical red zone in downtown Victoria. The zones, he adds, tend to target homeless people, drug users and sex workers.
"If someone had a red zone, they couldn't walk down any of these blocks," Jack says of an area near Pandora Avenue. "They couldn't store their stuff. They couldn't get their methadone. They couldn't see their family. They can't get food, can't get their dog cared for, can't get a haircut, can't get a shower. Those are all the services that exist in this three-block area that we're walking along right now."
Those people get pushed out to other parts of town, he says. Sometimes, they end up in public parks and other green spaces, out of sight.
"When people are pushed to these spots is most often when we found out that people have died without the ability to access these services."
Staff Sgt. Colin Brown of the Victoria Police Department says red zones aren't meant to be used in that way.
"The classic case is someone who's a drug dealer, who does not use the shelter for service, and who has a propensity for violence and threat," he says.
"A homeless person who is a drug user, who requires services, that is not a person we would be putting on a red zone, unless they were so disruptive and so violent that the service provider is saying, 'We just can't manage them here.'"
He acknowledges that police aren't perfect, and that red zones were used more frequently five or ten years ago than they are now. He encourages social workers who know of someone blocked from services by their red zone to contact him so that a solution might be found.
Mary, for example, received a letter from her parole officer that would allow her to access services at certain times of day. But she says a letter like that is difficult to hold onto on the street, where your possessions are frequently getting lost or stolen. And the letter doesn't account for emergencies.
So she and others would stand on the edge of their red zones, sometimes taking a chance.
"We'd all take our risks," she says. "You know, 'Go now!' It just became sort of like a game. It was silly, at times. But at those really important times, it was not silly. It was just a real nuisance."
She got caught a couple of times and sent back to jail for a couple of weeks.
"That's pretty intense," she says. "To know that your actions are not supported by anybody in the environment. To have to go back to jail twice to experience that."
"They were trying to do good for the city, but they actually didn't do it the right way, I think," she says of police. "They didn't know how to move us along, get rid of us. They're not going to get rid of us. They're just going to have to accept us and work mutually in agreeable terms somehow. You can't get rid of us."