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Downtown Eastside info centre a "whitewash" say residents

Struggling to be heard over construction noise in the Woodword's courtyard, 63-year-old Anne-Marie Monks described some of her experiences living in poverty in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

Often, she said, sleeping outside was preferable to mouldy and rat-infested social housing units she'd lived in. Now in the newly-renovated Portland Hotel, she says she's happy to have a roof over her head, but is uncomfortable living around so many people with mental health issues.

"At my age, I have a hard time dealing with it," said Monks, adding that she has considered leaving the city. "Even welfare has told me I can get a one-way ticket to Merritt, where my daughter lives, but what am I gonna do in Merritt? My daughter has kids, I don't want her to be responsible for me."

Monks was just one of the DTES residents who spoke at a press conference this afternoon, outside a ground-floor space in Woodword's that is serving as an information centre about the city's most infamous neighborhood during the Olympics. Wendy Pederson of the Carnegie Community Action Project, who helped organize the event, called the centre a "whitewash."

"We're offended that BC Housing is trying to manage the messaging of homelessness and poverty and the Downtown Eastside. They say that homelessness is about addiction and mental illness; it's not true," Pederson said. "We have a housing supply problem. We don't have low-income housing in this city. We have an income problem. We need to raise welfare."

The government-run Downtown Eastside Connect will showcase "innovative housing, social and economic development programs" and "assist international media to produce stories about the neighborhood by connection them with non-profit organizations that create positive changes in the community," according to a provincial press release.

The Carnegie Community Action Project is not one of those partner organizations. Pederson said they were asked to participate, but declined when they were told they couldn't include any political messaging in their flyers.

Inside the centre, a Ministry of Housing and Social Development spokesperson said the centre is about "providing an outlet for people to get information" and connect with some of the organizations and front-line workers in the Downtown Eastside.

"How the reporter covers the story is their own perogative," he said. "I don't believe we are glossing it over."

The ability of Vancouver's major dailies to objectively cover the Downtown Eastside was called into question by several journalism professors in a recent Tyee article. The Vancouver Sun and the Province are sponsors of the centre.

Colleen Kimmett reports for The Tyee.

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