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Introducing Our Downtown Eastside Reporter: Jen St. Denis

The neighbourhood deserves a hard-working journalist with integrity, and we nabbed her. Help get her started.

Olamide Olaniyan 3 Jul

Olamide Olaniyan is The Tyee’s editorial assistant. Follow him @olapalooza.

The Tyee has been committed to covering stories and issues in the Downtown Eastside, and we’re glad to finally hire a reporter to cover the neighbourhood full time. We’re excited to announce that reporter is Jen St. Denis. The reporting beat is covered with funds from the Local Journalism Initiative.

St. Denis has covered Vancouver and the events and forces that have shaped the city for the last decade. She’s reported on the appalling conditions in the Balmoral and Regent hotels, the tent city at Oppenheimer Park, and the overdose and housing crises. As the city hall and housing reporter for StarMetro, St. Denis dug into the big issues that affected the lives of people in the Downtown Eastside, and the city.

At The Tyee she’s treaded similar waters, writing about the Lower Mainland’s ugly eviction rates, chaos and displacement in the aftermath of the shutdown of the notorious SROs and a series on the family housing crisis in the Lower Mainland.

Recently, we’ve been taking a close look at how the COVID-19 pandemic is particularly impacting the Downtown Eastside and the ways that the community has come together to keep each other safe — important stories that have been underreported as local news reporting in traditional media has been cut.

St. Denis says there’s a lot more that can be done. “Whenever I’m working on a story about something happening in the Downtown Eastside, there are always many other stories I hear about, but just don’t have the time or resources to do,” she said.

Tyee editor Robyn Smith said the interest in Downtown Eastside coverage has sparked discussion at The Tyee about how to expand the beat and publish more voices from the community, with support from Tyee editors.

“By bringing on some of the other applicants to this position as freelancers and columnists, many with lived experience in the Downtown Eastside, we could provide more thorough, diverse coverage for a neighbourhood that sorely needs it right now. That’s an exciting prospect that we’re exploring,” she said.

The Tyee is also planning to find ways to provide the coverage directly to the community.

Meanwhile, we asked St. Denis more about what she hopes to bring to the role. Please feel free to send her a welcome or story tip in the comment thread below, or email her directly here.

Hello Jen! Big fan. Tell us about yourself.

St. Denis: I live in Vancouver’s West End neighbourhood, and I’ve been a journalist for about eight years. I grew up in the Kootenays and I’ve lived all over B.C., including Port Alberni, Prince Rupert and Victoria. I’ve worked as a staff reporter for Business in Vancouver, the Metro (later StarMetro Vancouver), and as an online reporter for CTV News Vancouver. I’ve also had my work published in the North Shore News, Vancouver Sun, Toronto Star, South China Morning Post and, of course, The Tyee.

You have been reporting on Vancouver communities and issues for nearly a decade. How did you get into this? (And why have you stayed this long, heh.)

It took me three years to decide to take the plunge to go to journalism school. I went back when my two kids were very small — the youngest was just 10 months. I had the idea that if I couldn’t get a job in journalism, I would work in communications. But to my dismay — because I knew it might be tough to find a job — I found that I loved reporting. Nothing else really comes close. What I like best is reporting local news that has an impact on my community, especially underreported stories.

What drew you to this opportunity at The Tyee?

The Downtown Eastside has managed to avoid a community outbreak of COVID-19, but the impact has still been devastating: overdoses have spiked and homelessness has increased. I was already feeling very concerned that, with many journalists being laid off and others focused on the huge volume of news produced by the COVID-19 crisis, there were things happening in the Downtown Eastside that the media was missing or not covering deeply enough.

I’m also very eager to get back into beat reporting, a style of reporting that allows you to follow a certain topic very closely and do a combination of daily reporting, in-depth features and investigative reporting. I was very excited to see The Tyee take this approach with the Downtown Eastside, a neighbourhood that deserves to have all its stories deeply told.

You’ve reported on many of the major crises enveloping the city over the last decade, particularly the overdose crisis and the housing and affordability crisis. How is reporting on long-lasting systemic crises different from other types of reporting and how does that prepare you for this role?

I’ve reported on the housing crisis for four years now and have dipped in and out of reporting on the overdose crisis for about the same amount of time. The reason I keep reporting on these things is that the subjects continue to interest me, and they continue to interest readers — I wouldn’t keep reporting on these topics if readers didn’t keep showing they were very interested in them.

One thing to remember about reporting on “crises” is that it’s not just about policies to fix a problem — the first thing to focus on is the human story. It’s easy to fall into thinking, “Oh, that’s sad that renters keep getting evicted, but that’s just the way it is,” or, “well, if people keep doing drugs, what can they expect?”

But you have to keep thinking about the people at the centre of the story: do we really want to live in a society where elderly or low-income people can expect to get evicted, or where using drugs is a death sentence?

How does that experience dovetail into the ongoing health crisis — the COVID-19 pandemic?

The pandemic has just highlighted all of the inequalities I normally report on — and it’s shown that when government wants to move quickly to change policies, it can.

Your investigation into the Sequel 138 building — a condo development that reneged on community amenity promises — really cut to the heart of a lot of the issues Downtown Eastside residents have been raising forever. Tell us more about that story, what you learned from your experience reporting it and how that informs the work you hope to do at The Tyee?

Back in 2011, when Sequel 138 was approved, there was a lot of activism against the project because it would add condos in the heart of the Downtown Eastside, and there was a fear that it would lead to more gentrification of the neighbourhood.

When I took a look at Sequel 138 in 2018, I found that those fears had come true — almost none of the promises made to the community had been fulfilled. Many of the storefronts were empty, there was no community arts space, and a housing covenant meant to prevent real estate speculation was toothless. The people who lived in the condo units were unhappy about living in the neighbourhood. And the city had no power to go back and fix any of it.

What I learned from reporting on this story is that it’s always useful to take the long view — to take the time to peel back all the layers. Not every story I write for The Tyee is going to be this long or in-depth, but when the right story comes along, we will be digging deep.

There's been criticism of much reporting on the Downtown Eastside as full of stereotypes, negative framings and ethical failures. How are you hoping to report on the neighbourhood with the critical eye and sensitivity it deserves?

It’s really important to listen to people and their experiences, to spend time in the neighbourhood, and learn why things are the way they are. Listen more than you talk. This job is, first and foremost, about providing Downtown Eastside residents with their own community news. This reporting isn’t going to be a tourist’s view of the neighbourhood. And it will hold decision-makers to account.

What voices are you hoping to hear and learn from as you take on this role?

I spend a lot of time speaking with advocates and activists when I do stories about the Downtown Eastside, but I’d like to hear more from residents — not only to find out what stories they’re interested in telling or reading, but how they want to consume news about their neighbourhood.

What are you currently obsessed with?

In my regular reporting on housing, it’s not uncommon for me to visit a $5-million condo one day, and a tent city the next. The gap between those two things has been a constant obsession for me for some time.

What are you looking forward to the most in this role?

I’m really looking forward to learning more from the Downtown Eastside community.  [Tyee]

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