Problem tenant has residents on edge

A tenant with mental health issues at this building at the corner of 10th Avenue and Kingsway has been engaged in behaviours that have raised health and safety concerns. - Wanda Chow/NewsLeader
A tenant with mental health issues at this building at the corner of 10th Avenue and Kingsway has been engaged in behaviours that have raised health and safety concerns.
— image credit: Wanda Chow/NewsLeader

Paul Sawyer is having trouble sleeping at night.

It's not just the chemotherapy the Burnaby resident is undergoing for cancer, but every noise from the apartment next door has now become cause for concern.

For the past several weeks, Sawyer, 50, has been living every apartment dweller's  nightmare: an unpredictable and unstable neighbour.

It started out well enough. The man moved next door in the building at 7387 10th Ave. about a year ago.

"For the first eight to nine months he was like a ghost, you never saw him or heard him, he was very quiet," said Sawyer. "He pretty much stuck to himself."

Then a couple months ago the neighbour's behaviour started to become erratic.

He blocked a fire escape with garbage and soiled clothing. The fire department was called only to have him remove the garbage and put it back out again later.

Sawyer could hear him talking all night through the walls. He started leaving garbage in the hallways.

Then about three weeks ago, the building manager knocked on Sawyer's door asking if he smelled smoke. She'd tracked it down to the neighbour's unit and when there was no answer at his door, they found it unlocked and entered, concerned about a possible fire.

The place was a mess, there was garbage everywhere, as well as what appeared to be human excrement on the floors, Sawyer said.

Then they found the source of the smoke—a small bottle of bleach with a smouldering roll of toilet paper around its neck, all sitting in the freezer compartment of the open fridge, which had been partly dismantled.

Sawyer threw the paper into the kitchen sink and doused it with water, then they called the fire department and police. When the neighbour returned an hour later, Burnaby RCMP took him away for a mental health assessment.

A few days later, Sawyer saw the man on the bus wearing nothing more than green hospital pants, a shirt and one boot.

When the neighbour arrived home to find the locks had been changed, he forced his way in and police were called. They spoke with him but he was allowed to stay.

Meanwhile, Sawyer said he and the approximately 20 other residents in the building are feeling threatened by the potential fire hazard and the behaviour.

Last week police were called again when the man started throwing large bags of garbage out his third-storey window onto the street below, Sawyer said.

"I don't believe this is malicious but I really believe this is a serious problem for him to get to that stage, do something like that."

And while he is relieved to hear the landlord is going through the process to evict the man, Sawyer is also concerned that he gets the help he needs.

"He's certainly fallen by the wayside. Will he be out on the street and become another statistic for society to deal with?"

Meanwhile, Sawyer is at a loss as to what to do and who to call to deal with the ongoing situation.

Burnaby RCMP Corp. Dave Reid confirmed the police visits to the building to deal with the tenant, who "has some mental issues."

The smouldering toilet paper set-up was "not explosive, it was really nothing other than a strange guy doing something strange," Reid said.

The man was taken under the Mental Health Act to Burnaby Hospital for an assessment and while he was gone, the building's management changed the locks and posted a sign on the door informing the tenant he was evicted.

"Which, of course, you can't do," Reid said. So when the tenant was released from hospital and returned home, he had to force his way in. Police responding to the call explained to the manager there is a process of eviction that needs to be followed.

"I understand why the other tenants are concerned," he said. "Basically, it's a landlord-tenant dispute."

There's a limit to what police can do, he stressed.

"At the end of the day, from our perspective, we will go when they call us, but unless he proves to be a danger to himself or a danger to someone else there's nothing we can do ... Unless there's a criminal thing going on, police can't do anything."

Police can assist with an eviction once proper process has been followed, "but we can't prevent him from acting bizarrely."

Craig Collis, chief licence inspector for Burnaby city hall, confirmed there's nothing the city can do about such cases as long as the issues are confined to inside the premises.

"Everything that goes on in a residential property is private unless it's a business activity," Collis said. Generally the city only gets involved if it's a complaint about the exterior of a property, such as a yard filled with garbage.

When it comes to police referring mental health issues to a hospital, generally a psychiatric assessment is arranged, said Fraser Health Authority spokesman Roy Thorpe-Dorward.

If they need to be admitted for hospital treatment, it can happen with the patient's consent or alternatively, with the agreement of two doctors.

If there's no reason to admit the person because they are deemed to not have an acute psychiatric illness and they are not considered to be a threat to themselves or others, they are released, with recommendations for followup in the community by a mental health caseworker, Thorpe-Dorward said.

Ultimately, dealing with a problem tenant is the responsibility of a landlord and a building's management, said Tom Durning, spokesman for the Tenant Resource & Advisory Centre (TRAC), a tenants' advocacy group.

"Under Section 28 of the Residential Tenancy Act ... every tenant has the right to privacy and quiet enjoyment and freedom from unreasonable disturbance," Durning said. "So it's up to the management to ensure that and unfortunately, if it happens to be another tenant, it's still their job to deal with it."

Durning advised tenants facing such issues to always inform building management of their concerns in writing. If it's not resolved, under the act, they can go after the owner for damages such as a rent reduction.

Usually a tenant can be evicted with 30 days notice for conduct reasons, although in severe cases early termination is possible, as long as the landlord can prove the behaviour was bad in the extreme.

"But there's nothing quick in any civil procedure," he cautioned, noting the tenant has 10 days to dispute the notice of eviction.

"If this guy has been given no warnings by the manager, it may be hard to uphold an eviction notice, so the manager has to be more hands on."

Info: Tenant Resource & Advisory Centre, or 604-255-0546;

Residential Tenancy Act,;

BC Residential Tenancy Branch,


How mental health issues are addressed in Burnaby

Just because police bring someone to a hospital for an assessment under the Mental Health Act doesn't necessarily mean they'll be committed for treatment.

"They need to be psychiatrically quite acute and having a major mental health disorder," said Pam Vickram, manager of Burnaby Mental Health and Substance Use Services. "We have a risk assessment and they are likely suicidal, or psychotic, schizophrenic, bipolar, extremely depressed and they need acute, in-patient treatment."

In such cases, following a comprehensive assessment, if it's determined the patient is at risk of harming themselves or others, they could be admitted for treatment voluntarily or alternatively, be certified by two physicians if there is a risk of "elopement, self harm or not complying with treatment," Vickram said. "We don't discharge patients who are so acute it requires acute services."

Once they become stable after treatment, patients would be discharged with followup done by community outpatient mental health workers.

"If it is just a behaviour issue and it doesn't come under the mental health disorder then they would be discharged."

Mental health conditions that would be typically treated in the community with outpatient resources include substance use, anxiety, non-acute depression.

Burnaby Mental Health Services, located at Burnaby Hospital, receives each month an average 240 referrals from the community and another 60 physician requests for urgent assessments, Vickram said.

While how they get to that point can vary, "the goal for mental health clients is to be living in the community with proper supports in place to safely manage their illness," noted Fraser Health Authority spokesman Roy Thorpe-Dorward.

Vickram agreed. "Our goal is always for our clients to be reintegrating into their own home base and own community and get them connected with community resources ... and their natural support system."

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