This from the Guradian (UK):
Dens of iniquity
[FONT=arial,helvetica,sans-serif]Forced out of crack houses by police clampdowns, drug dealers are re-opening for business by 'befriending' vulnerable council tenants and taking over their homes, with devastating results. Simon Ellery reports[/FONT]
[/FONT][FONT=Geneva,Arial,sans-serif]Wednesday November 15, 2006
[/FONT]Since new powers were introduced to speed up the closure of properties selling class A drugs such as crack cocaine and heroin, police forces and local authorities across England have swooped on crack dens. In Hackney, east London, 14 were closed in 2004 alone; Bristol, Brighton, Reading, Bournemouth and Blackpool have also seen successful police raids.
The crackdown, however, has led to dealers in many of these cities switching from using empty flats and squats as a base for dealing to a more disturbing strategy. They are now targeting older people, vulnerable young people or people with mental health problems on housing estates, befriending them, giving them drugs and then taking over their homes. Rehoused homeless people living in newly converted flats are also being targeted.
Community safety teams have dubbed the practice "cuckooing". In the last year, they have rescued more than 80 vulnerable tenants across the capital.
Keith Veness, estate safety officer for Hackney Homes' Crackdown Project, outlines one of the most common patterns, in which an old man is "groomed" by prostitutes. Once in the home, the prostitutes then bring in their pimps, followed by the drug dealers. Without police or council intervention, the vulnerable tenant gets kicked out of his home and ends up sleeping rough. "He is usually so traumatised that he does not know where to get help," says Veness. "We have had cases where the vulnerable tenant has just disappeared, and to this day we do not know what has happened to them."
There are also concerns about young people with mental health issues who get the keys to their own flat but receive little support. "They can be vulnerable to people befriending them," Veness explains.
In south-east London, homelessness charity Thames Reach warns that former homeless clients are losing their homes to cuckooing. Of its 1,000 clients, at least 30 are targeted each year.
Bill Tidnam, Thames Reach director of housing and community support, says: "It is massively damaging for the individual who's supposed to be getting his life back together. I have seen people go back on the streets because of this."
Tidnam suspects that organised crime is coordinating the practice. He says: "People think there is a police raid, the suspect goes to jail, and it ends. But it is not individuals, it is gangs."
According to Winifred Ikolodo, Hackney Crackdown Project drug referral worker, the most frustrating part of her job is that even when they have evidence that dealing is taking place, the tenant is unaware he is being exploited. "He says there is no dealing going on and the dealer is a 'friend', but it's obvious that he or she has an ulterior motive," Ikolodo explains.
A victim of this practice was 76-year-old George [not his real name], who was experiencing feelings of loneliness after moving into a new flat. "Friends of friends came round, and after a while it was a crowd," he recalls. "They started using heroin at my house. They are hardcore and you couldn't really stop them, but soon they started stealing my things. With some people it was easy to say 'go away', but others threatened me and even started looking for things to steal from my flat. One guy came - I knew him from before but I didn't realise that he was like that - he started to change all the rules in my flat, telling me who could and could not come back. He assaulted me. One day I refused to do what he said, and the next thing I knew I woke up in hospital. The doctor told me that I had had a violent overdose of heroin. I don't take heroin. I went home and found that I couldn't get in as all the locks had been changed."
In conjunction with Hackney's Crackdown Project, the property was raided and closed and a support package put in place for George - he received counselling and was moved away from the area.
Research suggests that cuckooing occurs mainly on blocks of flats isolated within estates, in flats next to stairwells. In most cases, the tenant eventually loses the home and has to stay in a temporary hostel while waiting to be rehoused.
Despite evidence that vulnerable people are being targeted, neither the government nor chief police officers are addressing the problem. The Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) has some 25 working groups looking at drugs issues, yet none are tackling this emerging problem. "We are aware of it happening, but it's not at a frequency for it to be considered a serious problem," says an Acpo spokesman.
Independent drugs experts, however, are concerned that not enough is being done to protect vulnerable people. According to Drugscope, dealers are increasingly visiting drugs services premises to identify possible targets. "Dealers know that the police and local authorities are more savvy to crack houses, so they try to balance this by being more invisible through homes on estates," says the charity's chief executive, Martin Barnes. "When social workers call to check on their clients, they [the dealers] say they are their friend or carer. Questions do need to be asked about the level of care and community support [clients] are being given."
In Bristol, police, drug misuse workers and social workers have a crack house protocol designed to provide vulnerable people who have lost control of their property with the support they need.
In Brighton, estate managers claim to have thwarted dealers taking over homes by employing surveillance technology to monitor vehicles entering and leaving the city. Graham Page, community safety team manager for regeneration agency East Brighton For You, says: "It's not such a problem now as it used to be. Dealers used to come down from Liverpool and befriend vulnerable residents. This is how drug dealers operate to get into a city."
Back in Hackney, Dawn Henry, Crackdown Project coordinator, says in many cases tenants who move into properties are "screaming out for help but are not getting it. And then what happens is that they are targeted by dealers, evicted and are on the street again. It's a vicious cycle."
As for George, he is now living in temporary accommodation in a hostel. He says: "This is one of the worst periods of my life. I need a brand new life away from this circle of people."
· Legal crackdown
Under the Antisocial Behaviour Act 2003, police can quickly close premises where class A drugs such as crack cocaine and heroin are being sold. Police can obtain a closure order from a magistrates court to shut the property for three months while evidence is collected from witnesses. The landlord can then decide whether to repossess the property. To kickstart the use of these new powers, ministers launched the nationwide Operation Crackdown, with the Association of Chief Police Officers, that led to 170 crack houses being closed to mid-2005. This took more than £13m of drugs off the streets, and led to the arrest of 3,400 suppliers of class A drugs and seizure of cash assets totalling more than £3m. The latest Home Office figures show that at least 500 crack houses have been closed.