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Human rights complaint against Downtown Ambassadors will proceed

VANCOUVER - A human rights complaint against the Downtown Ambassadors program will proceed.

Last week a BC Human Rights Tribunal denied an application by the City of Vancouver and the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association [DVBIA] to dismiss the complaint, which Pivot Legal Society filed in July, 2008.

Pivot alleged that the Downtown Ambassador program (staffed by private security firm Genesis, and currently funded by the DVBIA and the city) systematically discriminates against Vancouver's homeless population, claiming the ambassadors harass "undesirables," telling them to move off sidewalks and benches, stay away from certain areas and keep out of garbage and recycling bins.

Although economic status is not grounds for discrimination under human rights law, race is, and aboriginal people represent about a third of the homeless population in Vancouver. People with mental and physical disabilities are also over-represented on the streets, and therefore "by targeting homeless people, the Downtown Ambassadors have the effect of having a discriminatory impact," said Pivot lawyer Laura Track.

"We think the human rights tribunal will be a powerful tool to have this issue addressed."

Charles Gauthier, executive director of the DVBIA, said he was disappointed by the ruling.

"We had submitted reams of affidavits and documents illustrating how we conduct ourselves and how our Downtown Ambassadors conduct themselves when they work," said Gauthier. "We did deny the tactics alleged...and there is a lack of evidence from any homeless people to support [Pivot's] allegations.

The Downtown Ambassadors program expanded last year to include overnight service, but that funding was not renewed by the city. The program's contract with the city ends in August.

Councillor Kerry Jang said he couldn't comment while the complaint was before the tribunal, but said "when you're funding an independent body like the ambassadors that isn't regulated by the city, this is how you get in trouble."

"We are accountable to the city," countered Gauthier. "We have stringent conditions in our reporting back to the city and there is a service agreement in place."

Colleen Kimmett reports for The Tyee.

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