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British Columbia How the Downtown Eastside became an Olympics non-story

Anti Olympic protesters block the route of the Olympic torch relay on the first day of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, February 12, 2010.

Rafal Gerszak/ The Globe and Mail

The dire predictions abounded for years before the Olympics that Vancouver's two ugly secrets - the Downtown Eastside and homelessness - would be exposed by 10,000 international reporters who wouldn't be able to resist the story about a beautiful city's underbelly.

But those predictions never came true. A few of the larger outlets - the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, for example - did the obligatory scene-setter stories on those issues before the Games began last month. But they didn't reveal anything particularly new or startling. And they didn't ignite any kind of media firestorm that came even close to the later coverage of, say, Cauldrongate - the furor over the chain-link fence in front of the Olympic flame.

And any interest in general stories about human suffering seemed to evaporate in the face of individual tragedies during the Games, starting with the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili on opening day.

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"I was surprised at how focused the media was on just the Olympic events," said David Eby, the one-time housing advocate who fought for years to force the provincial government to meet its bid-book commitment of preserving and creating low-cost housing. "I thought they would be all over the city looking for stories. It certainly wasn't the onslaught of journalists walking up Hastings Street that we imagined."

City councillor Ellen Woodsworth was also taken aback by the lack of interest. "I was surprised at how little attention was paid."

They, along with others, are trying to figure out why. Was it because the province's sudden frenzy of efforts in the previous two years actually deflected criticism? Or something else?

Housing Minister Rich Coleman thinks it was because the province could show it had a plan. "I did talk to a lot of international media," said the minister, citing between 15 and 30 interviews on the topic. "I'll be honest with you. I challenged them on what was happening in their own jurisdictions. 'What are you doing about mental health and addictions? What are you doing about housing,' I said."

He believes the fact that the province could prove it was doing something affected the coverage.

"If we hadn't had a very strategic housing plan, it might have been more critical. What happened instead was they came looking for a story that wasn't there."

Mr. Eby agreed that the province's actions of the past two years, which included buying two dozen residential hotels in the Downtown Eastside, starting six social-housing projects, and paying for several additional winter shelters, did help.

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"The fact that the provincial government actually had something to talk about, it probably did alleviate the most dramatic criticism."

But both he and Ms. Woodsworth think there were other factors as well. Downtown Eastside advocates were so focused on marshalling opposition to the province's Assistance to Shelter Act, which gives police the power to take people on the street to shelters, or publicizing threats of mass evictions that they didn't have energy left for much else.

Now they and others are wondering whether the lack of attention will send a message to the province that its past efforts to tackle homelessness were successful or that it doesn't have to bother trying any more. Mr. Coleman laughs when he hears that. "The housing strategy hasn't changed."

But that doesn't reassure Ms. Woodsworth. "I keep reminding people, 'The shelters are closing April 30. Wake up.' "

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