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We're closing a crack house a week in Winnipeg

Score 1 for the CBC and 1 for City Councillor Harvey Smith.

But it's only one down, and 35 to go. So applaud by all means, but not for too long.

CBC-TV shamed city and provincial officials into doing something about a crack house on Simcoe Street that had been the target of a drive-by shooting last week.

Initially city officials told the CBC "we called the landlord, what else can we do?" But after video of the ramshackle building and its terrified occupants, with death threats painted on the outside and gang signs inside, appeared on the supperhour news, somebody lit a fire under somebody's ass.

The next day a swarm of inspectors descended on the building, and before they were through they ordered it shut down and the poor residents were told they had three days to clear out.

Guess that shows what they can do---if they want to.

But the original newscast had a disturbing loose end. The community has apparently identified 35 other crack houses, booze cans, and gang hangouts just like the one on Simcoe which need to be cleaned out. And Harvey Smith said he has been banging his head against the bureaucracy wall in his efforts to get some action against them.

We were shocked by what we discovered when we started looking into the story.

It turns out that over the past three years Manitoba's Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods Act has being used to shut down an average of one crack house or gang hangout a week.

It's not only an indicator of the extent of the crack epidemic in Winnipeg, but it's been happening right under the radar of the news media in the city.

The Safer Communities Act has been used about 340 times since it was passed in 2001.

In almost every case, the owners of the property agreed to voluntarily shut down and clean out the troublemakers. And that's a good thing, because once you see how many hoops the authorities have to jump through to shut down a building where the owner refuses to cooperate, it's a wonder they can ever do it.

The province has only had to go to court three times to get an order to force the shutdown of a crack house. The third case was in court this spring.

A neighbour complained to the provincial Public Safety Investigations Unit about a crack house operating for almost a year in the 200-block of Des Meurons Street just off Marion. He had tried calling Crimestoppers, but got no action.

The PSIU set up video surveillance in October and November, then warned the owner they were watching her. "The activities did not stop," the judge said in his ruling. In late November they resumed video surveillance, which showed that in a five day period 203 people entered the house through the back door and 184 left the same way.

The result---another letter to the homeowner in December. The frustrated neighbour called back to say the crack house was still operating 2 1/2 months after the PSIU got his complaint.

They set up more video surveillance in early January and found 95 people visiting the home over a four-day period.

"On January 12, 2009 investigators received a complaint from police about the property being a very active crack trafficking house.

A final video surveillance was conducted for 19 hours between March 9 and 10, 2009. Approximately 36 people were observed to visit throughout the late afternoon until early morning, the majority only for a few minutes. As well, on nine occasions, momentary interactions took place on the street between someone from the property and people in vehicles," the judge said.

It took until March 19, 2009 before the homeowner was served with notice the province intended to get a court order to shut the house down.

Late March. Almost SIX MONTHS after getting the complaint about the crack house.

They had to bring a the PSIU investigator, "an expert in drug culture and drug trafficking.", to court to say all that activity sure looked like it was a crack house.

Well, duh. Any one of the neighbours could have told you that. In fact, they did.

So six months later, a judge ordered the house closed up for 40 days, which he thought was a long enough cooling off period to send a message to the crack addicts to go somewhere else.

The law allowed him to shut the house down for 90 days, but he felt that was too harsh for the homeowner and her adult son and daughter. They were allowed to stay until her son finished school, but only the 3 could be in the house at any time.

So the police, who had known about the crack house from a Crimestoppers tip did, or could do, nothing to shut it down.

The provincial authorities took six months to "investigate", and in the end a judge told the homeowners to take a 40 day vacation, leaving it to the police to be house-sitters and make sure nobody, other than the woman and her children, lived in the house for three months until the closure order took effect.

Is it any wonder that Harvey Smith has white hair?

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