Drug dealers and gangs are taking advantage of Calgarians battling both homelessness and addiction by pressuring them to buy from specific sellers or to engage in criminal activities themselves, police and advocates say.
"It's gangs coming in now and providing housing, trap houses and food and water and supplies, in turn for selling drugs," said Chaz Smith, founder of street outreach group Be The Change YYC.
"The services that these individuals want are not existing within the social service sector in a timely fashion, and so gangs are taking advantage of that as an opportunity to sell substances."
A lucrative strategy
Supt. Scott Boyd with the Calgary Police Service said not only are trafficking networks able to profit from people who are unhoused, but they also lure them into criminal activities.
"They're willing to extend some sort of credit, for lack of a better terminology," Boyd said.
"If you go and commit this property crime or some act as enforcers, so if you're willing to go enforce with a level of violence, I'll pay you in exchange for those things, a feeding of you, [a] continuation of your addiction."
Boyd said Calgary police are focused on the leaders who are pursuing vulnerable people for their own gain.
In November 2020, Calgary police announced they had identified a drug distribution network that investigators said involved more than 500 people, known as The Family. They said the network used vulnerable Calgarians as distributors and the investigation also uncovered human trafficking.
'They want to live'
Sandra Clarkson, executive director of the Calgary Drop-In Centre, said issues of social disorder are often blamed on people experiencing homelessness who are actually the victims of human traffickers and drug dealers.
"We've heard stories of people being threatened if they don't buy drugs from certain individuals or if they won't sell for certain individuals. They're threatened with being stabbed or other violence," said Clarkson.
"To me, those activities are survival, not criminal in nature."
Smith said he's seen a rise in the amount of weapons his clients are carrying for protection, as well as more homeless individuals being assaulted.
"We see weapons and people having knives because they're trying to protect themselves," he said.
"They want to live just as much as anyone else."
Enforcement not always the answer
While not every person experiencing homelessness is dealing with health and addiction issues, Clarkson said those that are have often lost trust in the institutions meant to help them.
"They've experienced considerable trauma and that's often based on experiences with different systems, whether that be child welfare, justice and corrections, health care," Clarkson said.
Boyd added that someone caught up in a police operation who qualifies for drug treatment court can access social services for substance-use disorders and find help to avoid becoming re-engaged in criminal activity.
Seventy per cent of graduates from the Calgary Drug Treatment Court have no new charges or convictions.
That alternative wouldn't be offered to violent or prolific offenders because of the victimization placed on others.
"We know that jail isn't necessarily the right place to address those kinds of complex needs because we don't often, in jails, apply that trauma-informed lens," said Boyd.
"But this is where the community as a larger whole is required to bring forward solutions."
Until that happens, Smith said, gangs will continue to take advantage by offering the resources that society isn't.