Skip to main content

Nicola Lightstone stands with her dog, Noodle, at the site in Toronto's Regent Park neighbourhood where she was assaulted.Cole Burston/The Globe and Mail

Nicola Lightstone’s dog, Noodle, is insistent when he wants to go out, even in the middle of the night. So when he woke her up at 3 a.m. last Sunday, Ms. Lightstone pulled on some clothes and took him for a quick walk.

Ms. Lightstone lives in Regent Park, on the east side of downtown Toronto. The area has been changing fast over the past decade or so. Developers have teamed with the city to rebuild the neighbourhood, once dominated by rundown housing projects. Condominium towers are going up. New, better public housing is going in.

Ms. Lightstone often sees homeless people on the street, some of them mentally ill or intoxicated, but seldom feels threatened. She is 36 and often has Noodle, a 75-pound Labrador mix, at her side.

This night went a different way. A man approached her and asked for money. She said she didn’t have any. He took a step toward her. She ducked him, but he went around a car and came at her from the other side. She ran. He ran in front of her. She started screaming for help. He hauled off and punched her hard in the face. She ended up in hospital with a broken nose and two black eyes.

Ms. Lightstone, who goes by Nicky, is the furthest thing from a law-and-order, lock-them-all-up type. In training to be a psychotherapist, she feels nothing but sympathy with the plight of the mentally ill. She sits on the board of a harm-reduction agency that helps people who use drugs survive the ongoing plague of drug overdoses.

She is against the big boost to the police budget just announced by Toronto’s mayor, John Tory. She’d like to see the money spent on shelter beds, mental-health supports and help for troubled young people instead.

But she is convinced things are going wrong in her city. “On Saturday night I was a victim of a random violent assault while taking my dog out,” she said on Instagram after the attack. “I have a broken nose and a diminished sense of security in Toronto.”

Opinion: I was a victim of random violence on the TTC. Throwing money at the problem won’t make us safer

She is not the only one. A series of shocking incidents over the past few weeks have left the city severely shaken. A homeless man was stabbed to death downtown. Authorities charged several teenaged girls. An 89-year-old woman was pushed to the ground by a stranger while walking down the street. She died. There has been a spate of attacks on the Toronto Transit Commission. One woman was stabbed in the head and face on a streetcar, again apparently by a stranger.

Whether the city is really becoming more dangerous or whether this is simply a tragic cluster of frightening events is unclear. Toronto is still a safe place to live. The odds of suffering a random attack like Ms. Lightstone’s are tiny. Most homeless people you see on the street or on the bus pose no threat to anyone.

But the perception of danger is real and it threatens the health and future of the whole city. Ms. Lightstone says she hears friends wondering whether Toronto will go the way of crime-ridden, graffiti-daubed New York in the 1970s. There is a growing sense, becoming common in other Canadian cities, too, that things are spiralling out of control, with more open drug use, more out-of-the-blue attacks, more crime on public transit.

Mr. Tory is aware of the risk to Toronto’s sense of security. He is calling for a national summit on mental illness and addictions. “We are facing a mental health crisis across Canada and we are seeing the effects of it here in Toronto every day,” he said this week.

Ms. Lightstone says the man who attacked her was clearly mentally ill. The police pursued, arrested and identified him. The constable who called her afterward pulled the man’s file and let out a big sigh. He was well known to police. He had attacked people on the street before, always women. The police kept arresting him and the courts kept releasing him.

“He is getting sprung again and again,” Ms. Lightstone says. That can’t be right. This man, she says, was not a mugger bent on robbing her but simply an unwell, unbalanced person who fell through the cracks of the system. Why was he homeless? Why was he out on the street if he was so ill? Why hadn’t he been directed to a mental-health hospital for treatment? “I feel like the system failed me because the system failed him,” she says.

Ms. Lightstone loves her neighbourhood, with its rich mix of people. Neighbours in her building have been great, making her meals and taking care of Noodle. The cops who responded to her 911 call were kind and helpful.

This city has a lot going for it, but something has to change.