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Human-rights complaint by advocates for B.C. homeless dismissed

Jason Corlett, a supervisor with the Downtown Ambassadors program, and partner Vanessa Marshall walk their beat on Granville St. in Vancouver Jan. 5, 2011.

JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL/JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

British Columbia's Human Rights Tribunal has dismissed a high-profile complaint against the Downtown Ambassadors program, ruling that allegations that the ambassadors evict the homeless from public property weren't adequately proven.

Tribunal adjudicator Tonie Beharrell said in a decision released Monday the ambassadors could well have a discriminatory impact. But Ms. Beharrell said Pivot Legal Society – the Downtown Eastside advocacy group that filed the complaint – didn't meet the evidence threshold, because it didn't call any witnesses who were subjected to discrimination.

"… While the evidence presented by the complainants certainly raises the possibility that the actions of the ambassadors may have an adverse impact in relation to protected grounds of discrimination, the complainants have not provided evidence that establishes, on a balance of probabilities, that the ambassadors' actions have done so in practice," Ms. Beharrell wrote.

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The Downtown Ambassadors program, which is operated by the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association, aims to protect the property and interests of member businesses. The program's more than 20 employees also provide assistance to those living on the street and information to visitors.

Pivot argued the case on behalf of "individuals who are or appear to be street homeless and/or drug addicted and engaged in rough sleeping, sitting or lying down in public spaces, panhandling, vending, begging or binning, or other behaviours related to those personal circumstances."

Pivot alleged the policies and practices of the Downtown Ambassadors program have a disproportionately adverse impact on aboriginal people, as well as those with disabilities. It accused ambassadors of telling people living on sidewalks to move along, and of warning others they weren't permitted to enter certain public spaces, such as parks.

Charles Gauthier, executive director of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association, said the organization will take its time analyzing the 173-page decision. However, Mr. Gauthier said the association is pleased with the ruling.

"This ruling reaffirms the full confidence we've had in our program and our Downtown Ambassadors," Mr. Gauthier said. "They are 'eyes and ears' on our streets, they provide access to resources for people living on the streets, they liaise with our member businesses and they help visitors to our downtown."

He said the association will review the decision closely and assess whether it needs to make any systemic changes. Mr. Gauthier said the program, which has an annual budget of about $600,000, has received positive feedback from social-service agencies such as United We Can, Coast Mental Health Foundation and the Portland Hotel Society.

Douglas King, a Pivot spokesman, said the organization is disappointed with the ruling. "There's a burden that needs to be met at the tribunal, which sometimes can be very difficult when you're representing homeless people," he said.

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Mr. King said Pivot had discussed having homeless people testify, but ultimately decided against it.

"It's difficult, in the best of circumstances, to find plaintiffs for cases like this," he said. "We ended up concluding it would be easier, and hopefully just as effective, to proceed in their behalf. Obviously, in retrospect, the tribunal didn't like that."

Pivot was joined in the case by a co-complainant, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users. The 2008 complaint was filed not only against the business improvement association, but also against the city, because it previously funded part of the program.

A spokeswoman said the city is still reviewing the decision and declined further comment.

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