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Emotional appeals at Olympic Tent City press conference

Yesterday, the empty lot at 58 West Hastings Street became a makeshift camping ground. Homeless citizens and their supporters put up tents, tarps, and community rules on land owned by the condo developer Concord Pacific and designated as a VANOC parking space.

I counted about 40 tents this morning, but organizer Harsha Walia said that there were closer to 100 tents in the space overnight.

Today, the groups who organized the tent city -- most prominently, Power of Women and Streams of Justice -- staged a press conference to call attention to their criticisms. A handful of journalists showed up at 11 a.m., including representatives from Fairchild, Reuters and the Globe and Mail.

"I just want to make it very clear that the issues today are housing, gentrification and the criminalization of poverty," said Tristan Markel, a member of the student-lead group Vancouver Action. "It's gonna grow, you can't stop it... we need to spend more money on housing than on the Olympics. So, until that happens this is going to grow."

Markel is a university student standing in solidarity with the homeless, and he gave the impression of having some media savvy.

The homeless and struggling, on the other hand, spoke their unfiltered convictions. An Aboriginal man named Ricky said he had been brutalized by police, had seen his brothers killed in residential school. He asserted that 52,000 children had been similarly murdered. He clearly believed what he was saying. There are no officially recognized numbers on how many children died in the residential school system.

Ricky and the others made emotionally fraught statements that could be easily framed to encourage sympathy or derision, but not easily summarized or contextualized. They spoke as they would to a trusted friend. They made unrestrained accusations about the police, the government and the rich. They wanted more money spent on housing.

Elaine Durocher seemed unconcerned with brevity, weaving her personal history into her address.

"I used to be a drunk on these streets. I used to be an alcoholic. I used to beat my kids," she said through tears, "But I stopped and I just want people to know that if I could change my life, and if I could grow up and get an education after being illiterate all my life then other people down here that are poor need to have a chance also."

As she spoke, one journalist directly in front of Durocher wore a vacant expression while chewing a wad of gum. Other reporters, with softer expressions, showed signs of restrained empathy. All faced a journalist's challenge. How to distinguish this story from all the others, this moment in a larger narrative about an eclectic community of discontent.

"We will try to hold at least for a week," said Walia, when asked how long they planned to keep the tent city up. "The plans will keep changing. The plans will depend on who's here and on what people need."

On my way out, I stopped to take a quick picture of the tents. A Downtown Eastside resident approached me and asked what I was doing, his breathe heavy with alcohol. When I told him I was reporting on the Olympic tent city, he asked me what I thought of it. I said I didn't know, that I was just reporting.

"Bullshit," he said, smiling.

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