Thunder Bay·Audio

'Make them safe again': Thunder Bay police working to help victims of home takeovers

The high addiction rate in Thunder Bay is helping to fuel the increasing problem of home takeovers in the northwestern Ontario city, said Sgt. Dan Irwin, the head of the Thunder Bay Police Service (TBPS) intelligence unit.

High addiction rate, few treatment options make Thunder Bay attractive market for out-of-town drug dealers

Sgt. Dan Irwin with the Thunder Bay Police Service says home takeovers are a large and growing problem in the northwestern Ontario city. Drug dealers from southern Ontario travel north because of the high addiction rate, and limited access to treatment services, he said. (Scott Paradis/Thunder Bay Police Service)
Drug dealers using people's addictions to take over their homes.. Thunder Bay police say it's a growing issue in the city.. We'll hear from the head of the service's intelligence unit about how gangs from southern Ontario are taking advantage of the high addiction rates in the northwest to boost their profits.. And how police and other agencies are trying to support the victims. 7:50

The high addiction rate in Thunder Bay is helping to fuel the increasing problem of home takeovers in the northwestern Ontario city, said Sgt. Dan Irwin, the head of the Thunder Bay Police Service (TBPS) intelligence unit.

"Our treatment facilities are full, we have a small detox, which makes it hard for people to get help and it's all a spin-off and back into our hands," he said.

Home takeovers occur when a vulnerable person lets an individual stay at their house for a short period, during which time trust is established through the exchange of drugs or cash and then a demand is made.

Vulnerable people 'trapped' in home takeovers

"They say 'well, you owe us some money for the drugs' and then the person who lives in the house says 'I don't have any money' and they say 'we're going to stay here for the month then and we'll call it even at the end of the month.' But that never goes away and now they're trapped, they're stuck," said Irwin. 

People with addictions or mental health problems, especially young women, are the most frequent targets.

"It's an easy way to score some drugs and keep the habit fed because we all know that the habits are horrible on them and if it prevents them from going out and shoplifting for two weeks or selling themselves on the street, it's almost an easier way to get drugs."

But the situation becomes very difficult when the homeowner tries to get that person to leave.

They know the addiction rate in Thunder Bay is high.. I use the analogy that if you're going to open a store, you want to open it where there are customers.- Sgt. Dan Irwin, Thunder Bay Police Service

"There is an intimidation factor. They know these individuals are coming from southern Ontario and they mean business and once they're in there, they're [the homeowners or tenants] are scared because they are vulnerable. They have the addiction, they have the mental health [issues], they have a poor support system," he said.

"With social media, guys are texting 'there's a lot of profit to be made in Thunder Bay, if you come up to Thunder Bay to sell drugs for awhile you're going to make a lot of money quick and we've seen that and they know that and as fast as individuals are investigated and arrested they're replaced by other individuals coming from Toronto, Ottawa area."

"They know the addiction rate in Thunder Bay is high," said Sgt. Irwin. "I use the analogy that if you're going to open a store, you want to open it where you're going to have the customers."

'Do our best to work with everybody'

The Thunder Bay Crime Prevention Council has launched a public awareness campaign about home takeovers, with an emphasis on reaching out for help as soon as possible, even though many people fear being implicated in the crimes taking place in their home.

"It's just like anything, if you let things go for a long period of time, it's harder to explain," said Irwin, noting that "through the investigation process, things will come out and we'll understand what has happened and we'll do our best to work with everybody.

He feels it's important for people caught up in home takeovers to "have somebody to reach out to for help, making sure all the support services are there and making sure the victims and people who are being treated poorly have those resources and have the support of all these agencies, including the police to go to forward in court and carry things through for a successful prosecution and to make them safe again."