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After a string of attacks on elderly Vancouverites this summer, neighbourhoods, addiction experts and politicians are renewing the debate about what needs to change

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Harold Johnson, seen on Aug. 17, is a former firefighter who now patrols the Downtown Eastside as a security guard. He was attacked on the job a few days before this photo was taken.Nancy Macdonald/The Globe and Mail

Doctors have told Harold Johnson they can’t repair the broken bones in his cheeks. They shattered in too many places when a stranger assaulted him.

The former firefighter, who has been patrolling Vancouver’s Chinatown as a security guard for more than 20 years, also suffered a broken nose, head trauma and an eye injury.

It happened on Aug. 12, after Mr. Johnson, a gentle 64-year-old, snapped a photo in a laneway – something he’s required to do every hour during his 10-hour shift. “This guy comes out of nowhere, drops his bike, and started punching me,” he said. As Mr. Johnson fell to the ground, the man began furiously kicking him in the face.

Police later arrested the 44-year-old suspect in neighbouring Gastown, and charged him with assault.

Statistics show that crime is down overall in Vancouver – markedly so in the city’s more affluent neighbourhoods – though shoplifting, arson and mischief have all become more frequent in the downtown core over the past year. But an apparent spike in random, violent attacks has alarmed Vancouver residents and police, pushing the issue to the forefront of the city’s mayoral campaign, which will conclude with Saturday’s municipal election.

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Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart, who is running for re-election, marks his ballot at an advance poll on Oct. 13.Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

In September, Peter Juk, British Columbia’s assistant deputy attorney-general, issued a lengthy statement aimed at rebutting concerns mayors in the province had raised about crime. “The fact is that overall crime rates in British Columbia, are about as low as they have been for many years,” Mr. Juk wrote.

But a report commissioned by the provincial government concluded that the statistics Mr. Juk cited may not tell the whole story. In Vancouver, stranger attacks in 2021-22 jumped by 35 per cent over the year prior. And the attacks have become more severe.

The report, written by psychologist Amanda Butler and Doug LePard, a former Vancouver Police Department deputy chief, suggested that a shift in the drug supply is at least partially to blame. “Changes in drug patterns are contributing to unpredictable, and sometimes violent, behavioural patterns,” they wrote. “People are now becoming violent who we have never seen act violently in the past.”

A walk with a recovering Mr. Johnson through Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, which overlaps with Chinatown, demonstrated the deteriorating conditions in an area that was already known as a gathering place for people dealing with mental health issues and addiction.

Mr. Johnson is determined to resume life there. “I’m never going to give up until the day I retire,” he said.

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Tents and makeshift structures on East Hastings Street in the Downtown Eastside.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

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Mr. Johnson was left with a broken nose and head trauma from his assault in August.Nancy Macdonald/The Globe and Mail

He is among at least six elderly Vancouverites who were randomly – and sometimes savagely – attacked in the area this summer. In addition to those assaults, on Aug. 6 a man armed with a machete attacked four strangers in his rooming house, leaving each with what police called profound, “life-altering” injuries.

Another string of violent attacks occurred in the neighbourhood over the Thanksgiving weekend, including five stabbings. A man was also shot with a crossbow. Police described his survival as “miraculous.”

“I am furious,” said Mr. Johnson’s wife, Brandy LaRocque Johnson. “Not because of what has happened to Harold, but because it’s constantly happening.”

A pair of violent incidents that occurred as the Johnsons met with The Globe and Mail on a late August evening seemed to illustrate her point.

The first, another random stranger attack, occurred just before 5 p.m. outside the Chinese Cultural Centre, one block south of Hastings Street, in the heart of Chinatown.

A woman who works at a nearby drop-in centre, and who would identify herself only as Jane, was waiting for a bus when a stranger punched her in the back of her head, sending her stumbling forward, her glasses skittering across the sidewalk. Jane, who was shaking violently afterward, said it was the first time she had been attacked in her 25 years in the Downtown Eastside.

A half hour later, as Mr. Johnson stopped to point to the location where he had been attacked, a young woman leaned in and tried to grab his wife’s purse.

“Try it,” Ms. Johnson growled, gripping the black leather bag so hard her knuckles turned white. “You’re going to get hurt, girl.”

“I’m a barracuda when people try to take from me,” she said. The 72-year-old was born and raised in the Downtown Eastside area, and now runs a shop there, on Keefer Street, called Grandma’s Jewellery Box.

Every day, she said, she chases thieves away from the store, “pepper spray in one hand, cane in the other.”

At a bus stop at Hastings and Dunlevy Avenue, a woman took a pull from a bulbous glass meth pipe as the Number 20 bus pulled up. She exhaled as she walked down the aisle of the bus, the acrid smoke filling the air.

A few minutes into the ride, she began berating another passenger, a middle-aged woman, with racial slurs. When the woman got off, she followed, still screaming.

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First responders attend to an overdose outside a tent on East Hastings this past August.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

A year ago, B.C. began providing drug users with permanent access to a regulated supply of opioids and other addictive substances, as part of a policy known as safe supply. The move is intended to prevent people from using tainted drugs, or overdosing on substances that are more potent than advertised.

In addition to regulated, legal suppliers of drugs, the city has shops that operate in legal grey areas. On Hastings, a tidy storefront recently began selling “medicinal” LSD and psychedelic mushrooms. Cocaine-laced lattes are sold at a coffee bar inside.

The city had 65 drug deaths in 2012. There were 535 last year.

For months, men and women have been sleeping along Hastings Street, in block after block of tents and cardboard squats. Assaults, infectious disease and sexual violence are constant threats. Dealers, pimps and those who prey on them stand watch.

For a time this summer, city buses stopped running east on Hastings. The tents pushed pedestrians onto the street.

The city’s fire chief ordered the street cleared, but her July 29 deadline is now months old and many of the structures remain. Some who were living on Hastings moved to Crab Park, the only oceanfront park on the city’s east side. There, a community kitchen recently opened next to a chop shop for bikes. On a recent morning, a woman served coffee to a few early risers who had gathered to chat. Behind them, dozens of tents and shacks made of plywood and tarps were crowded along a waterfront walking path, a first-world shantytown in the shadow of some of the world’s most expensive real estate.

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Tents surround a building on East Hastings. Vancouver's fire chief issued a deadline to clear the site this summer, but it came and went, and the tents remained.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

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First Nations artist Edgar Rossetti sits outside his tent with his paintings.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

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A local resident sits outside his tent with a cat.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

On Hastings, it was once common to see people injecting heroin, or smoking crack or cannabis. These days, most open users seem to be smoking meth, which is now cheaper and more powerful than it used to be.

Ephedrine, used in decongestants like Sudafed, was once meth’s key ingredient. But governments began tightly restricting its sale in the mid-aughts, leaving drug manufacturers hamstrung, according to author Sam Quinones, who has written about the rise of meth and fentanyl on the West Coast.

Mexican cartels stepped into the void. According to Mr. Quinones, the cartels’ drug producers make potent meth out of cheap, legal chemicals – lye, cyanide, sulphuric acid and even mercury – at so-called superlabs. As the Mexican product began flooding West Coast markets a few years ago, prices collapsed.

Meth can create intense paranoia, delusions and psychosis, not all of it reversible. Dr. Butler and Mr. LePard wrote in their report that this helps explain the rise in stranger attacks in Vancouver.

They noted that the number of people arriving at hospital emergency departments with meth-induced psychosis has “skyrocketed” across B.C.

“In addition, repeated nonfatal overdoses are resulting in increasing rates of acquired brain injury and research has robustly demonstrated that aggression and agitation are common consequences of brain injury,” they wrote.

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Sandra Willman, a local volunteer, picks up trash along East Hastings in August.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

It’s not easy to operate a business in this environment. As recently as a few years ago, the block opposite the Woodwards Building, a 43-storey Flatiron-style tower on Hastings Street, seemed to herald a revitalization. But almost all the fashionable shops that opened on the block opposite have shuttered: Structube, Noodle Box, a yoga studio, a spin cycle studio, a men’s clothing store.

Prado, a coffee shop, is one of the few remaining tenants, along with convenience stores advertising the butane torch lighters preferred by meth users.

The optimism that followed the opening of the Woodwards redevelopment a decade ago has faded. Black steel gates now line the mostly empty block.

This summer, Pat’s Pub, a beloved city jazz venue in the Patricia Hotel on Hastings, announced that it was suspending its twice-weekly jazz shows.

Tinland Cookware, a Chinatown icon, announced that its last day in business would be Aug. 31, after three decades in the neighbourhood. Both blamed the rise in street disorder for their decisions.

Remaining Hastings stalwarts, like the Vancouver Pen Shop and the thrift store near Heatley Avenue, have adapted to the new environment. They keep their doors locked and buzz in small numbers of customers at a time.

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An oxygen tank and Narcan kit lie alongside movies for sale on the East Hastings sidewalk.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Earlier this summer, Chinatown made headlines for a rash of nightmarish reviews on TripAdvisor. “AVOID. AVOID. AVOID,” wrote a visitor who said they were from the U.K. “Like the slums – beyond shocking.”

Last year, the Chinatown Business Improvement Association spent half its annual budget, some $240,000, on supplemental security for Chinatown.

When Mayor Kennedy Stewart was first elected four years ago, he agreed to meet once a month with Chinatown organizers, who were launching a bid to make the historic Vancouver neighbourhood a UNESCO world heritage site. They wanted to discuss only one topic: public safety.

Nine months in, the meetings were abruptly called off. Merchants were frustrated by the city’s lack of action and saw no point in continuing.

“In our culture, we don’t like conflict. We don’t like confrontation,” said Lorraine Lowe, executive director of the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden in Chinatown.

“We tend to put our heads down and truck on. But it’s got to the point where I need to speak out.”

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Mr. Johnson says he's been waking up with cold sweats since being attacked.Nancy Macdonald/The Globe and Mail

For 10 hours every day, Mr. Johnson absorbs the suffering, anger and hurt of residents as he patrols the laneways and cracked sidewalks of the six-block neighbourhood. It’s a Chinatown he barely recognizes.

He knows that addiction is a disease. He worries after the vulnerable people he encounters every day. And yet, these days, he sometimes has trouble drawing on the compassion that once defined him.

After the attack, Mr. Johnson considered retiring. Ms. Johnson talked him out of it. “You’ve got to stand up for yourself,” she recalls telling him. “You’ve got to show them you’re better than that. You’re going to have to be strong – it’s going to be hard to do. But we’re going to do it together.”

These days, all Mr. Johnson wants is his home, a quiet Hastings Street apartment. Since the attack, he has been waking in the middle of the night in cold sweats.

As the pair waited for their bus at the corner of Main and Hastings on Thursday night, paramedics in face masks surrounded a tiny woman in a wheelchair.

“Down sickness,” Mr. Johnson explained. “Withdrawal.”

One block north, a police officer grabbed a pedestrian mid-stride, to stop her from stepping into a pool of blood, still wet following a stabbing.

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