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Man living in shed highlights revolving door of criminal justice

Why is Marcus Beg living in a shed on a Saanich porch? Because the system doesn't know what to do with him

Marcus Oliver Beg thinks he’s God and that no one understands the magnitude of his powers. Others, including the police, think he’s violent, erratic and unpredictable.

Marguerite MacDougall, the Saanich woman who has been giving him a place to live, thinks he’s a troubled but kind man who desperately needs medical help. And as hard as she’s tried, she can’t seem to find it.

Beg’s story lays bare the lack of community supports for people with mental-health issues, and highlights the revolving door of the criminal-justice system, in which people cycle through addiction, homelessness, arrest, hospital, jail and back again. His encounters with police have raised concerns about the way police respond to people in mental-health crisis and whether the presence of armed tactical officers escalates the situation for someone already in distress.

MacDougall, 74, lives in a tidy two-storey home with a well-kept garden in Saanich. She has a photo of her grandchild, Beg’s daughter, sitting next to her reclining chair in the living room.

Beg, 49, was previously in a long-term relationship with MacDougall’s daughter, Susan Szikora. Beg and Szikora were still gripped by heroin addiction when their daughter was born nine years ago, so MacDougall cared for the girl until she was five. The child has since been adopted. Beg and Szikora have gotten clean and remain friends.

Beg sleeps on an old couch in a small white shed on the porch off MacDougall’s living room.

The shed is filled with backpacks and duffel bags stuffed with notebooks, each page covered in Beg’s frenetic drawings. He explains one image, a depiction of planets and constellations in black and grey marker on the back of a white shelf.

“I drew that from one line. Just opening my mind to the cosmos and I keep on going.”

As much as MacDougall cares about Beg, housing him is becoming an untenable situation.

His loud outbursts and violent threats have sparked calls to police. On March 31, for example, the Greater Victoria Emergency Response Team closed off the quiet cul-de-sac after Beg refused to come out of the shed. The standoff lasted eight hours.

MacDougall had to wait at the end of the street while the drama unfolded. She feared Beg was going to be shot by the police.

“I seriously believed he would be dead today,” MacDougall told the Times Colonist the day after the incident.

But Beg was not shot, and not arrested. It was determined he was not a threat and the police left the scene.

The incident started when someone called 911 to report that Beg was uttering death threats. MacDougall had left the home to buy cigarettes for Beg, and returned to find police cars surrounding her house.

She and her daughter were told to wait at the end of the street, despite pleading with police that they be allowed to go in the house and calm Beg.

“They surrounded the house,” MacDougall said. Beg could be heard yelling. MacDougall told police that was part of his mental illness.

“I said: ‘Last time I looked, mental illness is not a criminal offence.’ ”

Officers asked MacDougall and Szikora to find another place to stay for the night. Both refused to leave the street.

“I said: ‘I’m not going anywhere,’” MacDougall recalled. “The last thing I want to see is him going out in a hearse.”

Saanich police spokesman Const. Damien Kowalewich said police responded to a “potentially serious incident with what we believed were appropriate police resources to remedy the situation.”

Kowalewich would not say what information was in the 911 call that caused serious concern.

Kowalewich said after uniformed patrol officers arrived on the scene, the Greater Victoria Emergency Response Team was called. Officers and mental-health nurses from the Integrated Mobile Crisis Response Team, which deals with mental-health emergencies, were also called.

“The incident was resolved without further police intervention, there were no injuries, no one was arrested,” Kowalewich said.

MacDougall said she has filed a formal complaint with the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner because of the way Beg was treated.

Police in Victoria and Saanich requested the Emergency Response Team 48 times between July 1, 2015, and June 30, 2016, and in six of those cases, mental health was a factor, according to police data obtained through a freedom-of-information request by the Times Colonist. This is down from 2006 numbers, where mental health was a factor in 14 out of 55 ERT calls in Saanich and Victoria.

The Times Colonist asked to speak with a Saanich police crisis negotiator for an explanation of the process used when officers respond to someone in mental distress, but no one was made available.

Last summer, Beg was living in a tent in the park opposite the Saanich police station and municipal hall but he was constantly asked by police and bylaw officers to move. Szikora tried to get Beg on a list for subsidized housing, but was unsuccessful. He has been turned down by landlords because of his odd behaviour. MacDougall took Beg in because she didn’t think he’d be safe living on the streets.

“Well, there’s no place for him and no one else will do it … My friends tell me I’m insane for doing it and you’re putting yourself in danger,” she said. But MacDougall is not worried about her safety.
Her primary concern is getting help for Beg.

Beg sat down with a Times Colonist reporter and photographer the day after the standoff.

He’s tall and has a solid build. He was wearing two button up shirts, one done up and the other one open. Two objects were stuffed into his shirt, giving him the appearance of wearing a bulletproof vest. Chunky silver rings adorned four of the five fingers on his right hand, and his left arm is covered in skull tattoos. A black tuque was pulled down low on his forehead, half covering his brown eyes.

The previous night’s incident seemed to be a distant memory, but when pressed, Beg explained, in a deep, gravelly voice, that he had been meditating and “trying to cancel everything out” when police surrounded his shed.

“The door was unlocked and at any time they could have opened the door and come in,” he said. “I’m not trying to hurt anybody.”

Beg said there are some officers he trusts and others “who are fearful of me and some who think I’m full of s—.”

MacDougall initially contacted the Times Colonist in February after Beg was arrested after an hour-long standoff outside her home. On Feb. 15, she had called police because Beg became emotionally unstable and started yelling angrily.

In that case, the Emergency Response Team was not called but MacDougall said several Saanich police officers responded, some with police dogs. Some officers had weapons trained on Beg as he stood in the driveway, next to a shovel he was using to clear snow.

MacDougall said she had called police about Beg many times before and thought the response was “overkill.”

“They did have one of the officers who was wonderful, he talked to him about his art. He did do the whole psychological approach. It didn’t work with Marcus because all he could see was fury, just hatred for the police. Because his idea is ‘they’ve taken everything from me.’ ”

Hazel Meredith, executive director of the B.C. Schizophrenia Society’s Victoria branch, said since the Braidwood inquiry into the death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver International Airport, police training in mental health has dramatically improved, and many officers are using crisis intervention and de-escalation techniques.

“Building a rapport would be things like making sure you’re using an open stance with an individual, being aware of closeness of space, speaking in a more gentle tone, seeking to befriend a person and bring down their anxiety versus coming in a very hostile manner,” Meredith said. “I honestly believe with the crisis-intervention training and knowing about mental health, that they are able to employ ways of engaging with a person to minimize stress and to take away unnecessary aggression.”

A handful of seconded police officers work alongside mental-health workers and nurses through Island Health’s Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) and the Integrated Mobile Crisis Response Team. The officers on the ACT team dress in plainclothes, which Kathy Stinson, CEO of the Victoria Cool Aid Society, said can have a major impact on how people in crisis react.

“[The ACT officers] usually work in plainclothes to ensure they don’t trigger folks,” Stinson said. “So that can make a difference for sure.”

After the February arrest, MacDougall hoped Beg would be kept in hospital for a psychiatric assessment, but he was only kept overnight before being sent to the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre on a charge of breach of probation.

MacDougall said when Beg is in jail, he’s often kept in solitary confinement because he disturbs other inmates when he talks to himself.

“Because he’s mentally unstable, he can’t survive in the prison system,” MacDougall said. “Where do they put him? In solitary because there’s nowhere else.”

It’s estimated that about 30 per cent of B.C.’s prison population have mental-health issues, and about 60 per cent have a combination of addiction and mental-health issues, according to Dean Purdy, vice-president and chairman of Corrections and Sheriff Service for the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union.

Beg has never been diagnosed with a mental illness. But MacDougall said in the past few years, his delusions have worsened and he shows signs of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Beg talks in long soliloquies about faith, the universe and his place within it.

“I know that what I say is going to sound weird, but what I say is completely true because I can’t lie, it’s a physical impossibility for me. You’re sitting with God. Honestly you are truly sitting with his holy grace,” Beg said.

Beg has been in and out of jail since he was 12 years old.

“It’s a constant combination of mental health [crises] and jail,” MacDougall said.

Beg is well-known to Victoria and Saanich police and has served time in jail for uttering threats, resisting arrest, breach of probation, assault with a weapon and possession of a weapon for a dangerous purpose.

When he is not in jail, he gets by on a disability pension.

MacDougall said she’s desperate to find Beg a place to live where he will have mental health and community supports.

“We’ve called every agency in town and no one will help him,” she said. “I just want some mental health treatment for him and people like him.

“I’m desperate to get help for this man.”

Kelly Reid, Island Health’s director of operations for mental health and substance use, said most people with significant mental-health and substance-use problems find help within the medical system.

“But there are absolutely some individuals who maybe because of the types of needs they have, multiple services for instance at the same time or they don’t perfectly fit into our service continuum, we may not be as helpful as we would like,” he said.

Reid said individuals believed to be a danger to themselves or others are often brought to the hospital after being apprehended by police under the Mental Health Act. If the initial assessment determines the person’s volatile behaviour or psychosis was due to substance use rather than a mental disorder that requires psychiatric treatment, the person can no longer be held at the hospital under the act, Reid said.

Island Health has 870 beds at 24 facilities that support people with mental-health issues and substance use in the south Island region.

Meredith said she often hears from family members who are taking care of a loved one who is struggling with mental illness because they can’t find supportive housing.

“If people don’t have housing, then they’re stuck living in the family homes, maybe not accessing care,” Meredith said.

MacDougall said Beg has not had any outbursts since the standoff call in March. But as long as he is living in her shed, he’s not getting the help he needs.

“It’s not a solution. He’s a recluse in a shed. There’s no life there,” she said.

“It’s no better than being incarcerated.”