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With few options, homeless predict return to dismantled tent city

A camp protester and City of Vancouver workers clean up Oppenheimer Park after a tent city protest was taken down Oct. 16, 2014.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Vancouver's squalid tent city in a Downtown Eastside park has been dismantled but some residents are already predicting they will be back.

Police made five arrests from two holdout tents Thursday as they slowly spent the day carrying out a court order that required the campers to leave by late Wednesday night. Three men and two women were taken to jail. Police will be considering charges of obstruction and breach of a court injunction.

Milt Grenwich, 34, said he had been been at the tent community for about half its existence. He declined to say where he would go next, but said the protest had been a positive spiritual experience. He said he enjoyed duties dealing with groundskeeping, working in the kitchen and security. "I'll carry [the experience] with me for the rest of my life as a highlight," he said.

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Another 52-year-old occupant who gave his name as Tim said he expected he might end up in another park – or even back in Oppenheimer Park. "I used to hang out in this park long before tent city even happened," he said.

For months, the park has been so dotted with tents the grass was barely visible. But Thursday, the grounds were dotted with patches of dead grass in the shape of the removed tents. The city was directing some to shelters and some of them were open earlier than usual on Thursday. Fire department, sanitation, engineering and parks staff came after the activists, clearing away garbage, syringes and other abandoned items as work began to rehabilitate the park for public use.

Malcolm Bromley, Vancouver general manager for parks, said parks staff would be raking grass to look for dangerous objects such as syringes. "It's going to take a lot of slow handwork to make sure we rake through all the grass, we look for any sharp needles or any objects." He said leaders among the protesters have alerted staff to tents where there may have been such objects.

Vancouver Police Chief Jim Chu said police had no urgency to clear the one-hectare park, named for the city's second mayor, David Oppenheimer.

"If [officers] want to take more time to have dialogue and convince someone to voluntarily leave then I will let those officers exercise their discretion in taking their time to do that."

On site, Constable Brian Montague said police were taking "small steps" to deal with the evacuation. "We're crossing each bridge as we get to it," he said. "I guess you could describe it as a fairly soft approach."

But by late Thursday, patience had run out.

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Constable Montague said the arrests were made from among a small group who interfered with those trying to clean up the tent city.

"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."

During the months of protest, he said police had seized varied weapons and ammunition including knives, clubs, and makeshift firearms.

DJ Larkin, a lawyer for the Pivot Legal Society helping with Thursday's departure by campers, said protesters would be less visible, but their issues would not go away.

"When you see someone sleeping in a doorway tomorrow, please remember they may have been sleeping here last night. Their lives continue and the same problem continues."

On Wednesday afternoon, the body of a man, believed to be 69 years old, was found in one of the tents according to police. They said the death was not believed to be suspicious, though no cause of death has been released.

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