BRITISH COLUMBIA

Oppenheimer Park Homeless Camp Disperses

10/16/2014 06:49 EDT | Updated 12/16/2014 05:59 EST
Jonathan Hayward/CP
VANCOUVER - The day Ben DuPont walked out of jail last July, he bought a little green tent for $64 and pegged it into a Downtown Eastside park that soon sprouted a motley collection of neighbours with no place else to live.

The 57-year-old, originally from Yukon, stood over the square imprint on Thursday that once held his trapper's tent, now containing only a large city trash bin.

"That man has sentenced a bunch of people right back to the alleys, doorways. He hasn't got a heart," DuPont said, referring to Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson.

"I was looking for something in life to fight for. I think I found it."

Just a month ahead of a municipal election, the mayor became the target of many people's indignation as city workers and police officers moved in to clear out Oppenheimer Park. They were fulfilling a court-ordered eviction deadline of Wednesday at 10 p.m.

A B.C. Supreme Court judge granted the injunction last week when the city claimed the local community's rights were being trampled while it pledged to make more shelters available to the campers.

Over the course of Thursday, the once cheek-by-jowl tent city had, for the most part, peacefully transformed into a patchwork of dead grass and mud with only a few holdout campers.

Early in the evening, police announced they had arrested five people.

"A small number of campers who appeared intent on remaining in the park interfered with workers as they attempted to remove the last of the tents," said a statement issued by the Vancouver police.

"Negotiations throughout the day continued with no progress. Officers were eventually required to step in to keep the peace and forced to arrest five people."

Tired men in dirty clothing folded up tent poles and pushed carts overflowing with personal belongings at the same time that city workers used pitchforks and rakes to shovel the leftovers into garbage containers. Crews of fire services personnel slowly approached shelters, knocked on flimsy doors and then deflated the massive tarps as six advocates in orange T-shirts acted as observers.

The park's former residents said they would figure out where to sleep when night fell.

In the hours before the injunction deadline, a 69-year-old man was discovered dead inside a tent. Police later said the death wasn't suspicious.

A city official said staff had transported 70 people from the camp into shelter beds the previous night and had also relocated 60 people into more permanent housing. Others were moving in with parents or partners, said Sadhu Johnston, deputy city manager.

"Overall, we're really relieved that we got co-operation from the campers," Johnston said. "I think the community will be pretty excited to have their park back."

The city has taken away a better understanding that it's not just housing that's needed, but a multi-pronged approach to homelessness that includes mental health and addition support, Johnston said.

"The city can't do it alone," he said, repeating the mayor's call for the province to step up. "(The tent city) has confirmed the challenges we have with people living on the street."

But local resident Charlotte Zesati, who said she only lives one step above those in the tents, said the forced removal made her think officials don't truly comprehend the situation.

"They're not trying to provide solutions. Shelters aren't solutions, I'm sorry. They're terrifying. They're bed bug ridden. Girls are getting assaulted and raped. Men are getting assaulted and robbed," she said, tears welling in her eyes as she cast her gaze over the empty spaces and a few people huddled around a campfire.

"We're so rich, this country ... and I just don't understand how people can treat other people like this.

Another woman, who had a friend living in the park and who had volunteered in the camp's community kitchen for the past two weeks, said she felt the dismantling was the right conclusion.

"I think it's completion. They've done what they needed to do here. A statement has been made," said Annie Cavanagh. "It's obvious to the population of Vancouver how bad the homeless situation is."

Follow @TamsynBurgmann on Twitter