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Our Downtown Eastside Reporter on Her First Month, and Why Her Beat Matters More than Ever

Jen St. Denis was the latest guest on Tyee’s ‘Three Things’ interview series.

Pratyush Dayal 6 Aug 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Pratyush Dayal is a graduate student at UBC’s School of Journalism, Writing and Media. Follow him on Twitter @Pratyush_Dayal_.

Jen St. Denis has worked as a beat reporter at various B.C. news organizations for eight years. But when she saw the job posting for a Downtown Eastside reporter at The Tyee, she knew she wanted it.

“It was so needed right now. COVID-19 had a sharp impact on the DTES, with homelessness increasing, huge [increases] in overdoses, and really the community was in crisis. It was being reported, but I knew there was much more to do there in terms of shining the light on the community at this moment,” she said.

St. Denis shared her thoughts about her new beat and why it matters more than ever during our latest edition of Three Things, our short, livestreamed interview series where you get to know The Tyee team, three things at a time.

St. Denis joined our newsroom in early July, just after B.C. reported its highest opioid overdose deaths for a second consecutive month. She didn’t spare a moment.

Within her first three weeks she reported on the impact of guest restrictions at publicly run SRO hotels on residents, people fighting eviction threats and the killing of overdose prevention worker Thomus Donaghy.

St. Denis recognizes the persistence of issues such as overdose deaths and homelessness in the neighbourhood. Even though reporters have covered the DTES community since the 1990s, not much has changed, she said.

“We haven’t seen deep societal change. We haven’t seen the wholesale leap into what decriminalizing drugs looks like, what [a] wide-ranging safe supply system that works for everyone looks like.”

St. Denis is motivated to bring change through her reporting and has already seen her journalism have impact in the community. “I am feeling more confident now saying that yes, we are going to change some things. They might be small things, but they matter to people whose lives have been affected.”

The DTES has never been a full-time beat, as far as St. Denis knows. She feels lucky to work with a “laser-like focus on the neighbourhood” and hopes to build on the reporting done by journalists at other outlets.

“I am hoping to do it as a community news kind of beat. Not just solely focusing on one specific social issue but covering the DTES as a community,” she said.

Some of the journalists St. Denis looks up to include Travis Lupick from the Georgia Straight and Andrea Woo from the Globe and Mail, who’ve persistently reported on the crisis, covering it as a national tragedy.

Local reporters Mike Howell and Frances Bula have also been mentors. She said she learned to ask the hard questions from Howell’s sensitive and thorough reporting and is inspired by Bula’s coverage on DTES homelessness in the 2000s.

St. Denis is currently working on a story about the growing tent city in Strathcona Park and the various tensions involved.

“We need to take a hard look at the city’s role and province’s involvement in all this. We have had continuous tent cities somewhere in Vancouver since 2016. I am going to write an analysis piece on it about some solutions and ask the city about it,” she said.

St. Denis personally believes that providing more housing at income assistance shelter rates could be one of the solutions to homelessness and tent cities. But she said that her personal beliefs and ideas aren’t part of her job.

“It’s not my role as a journalist to offer solutions. My role is to present an array of thoughts, ideas and back them up with evidence. That’s how I am interested in operating, rather than bringing forward grand solutions. I don’t have that expertise.”

Next up, she hopes to meet many more people from the community to hear their stories, find out what’s on their minds and what they care about.

“I am interested in things that seem little to people who are housed and have jobs, but to people who are struggling, they are enormous barriers.”

Those things can be fixed, she says — “if we all put our mind to it.”  [Tyee]

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