Friday, July 18, 2008

Groups file human rights complaint over treatment of Vancouver's homeless

VANCOUVER — Private security guards that patrol downtown Vancouver on the lookout for crimes and other social ills violate the rights of drug addicts and the homeless, says a complaint to be filed Thursday with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal.

The complaint alleges the guards hired by the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association and known as "downtown ambassadors," unfairly harass addicts and limit their access to public spaces.

The unarmed guards' role, according to the association's website, includes assisting the public with directions and other questions, monitoring and deterring crimes in public spaces and reporting crime and "quality of life" concerns.

The complaint by the Pivot Legal Society, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users and the United Native Nations claims the guards discriminate based on the disabilities of addiction and mental illness.

And they say the guards' actions disproportionately affect aboriginals.

In particular, the groups complain the guards order people sitting or laying on the sidewalk to move and try to prevent people from looking for recyclables in dumpsters.

They say the guards follow and stare at people they find "undesirable" and take photographs and notes for unknown purposes.

"Each of the above-noted tactics individually and collectively have the effect of 'humiliating' and 'shaming' homeless people who have equal legal access to public spaces, including sidewalks and back lanes," says the complaint, which contains allegations that haven't been tested in court.

No one from the business association was immediately available for comment.

The groups note the guards enjoy a sanctioned position of authority, but don't have any special legal mandate or protection.

They ask the commission to declare that the guards are violating the province's human rights code and order them to stop.

And they want the commission to order the business association to pay $20 each to people affected by their actions. They also ask the association to pay the costs of pursuing their complaint.

The security-guard program started eight years ago and has expanded with the blessing of Vancouver's city council.

The downtown ambassadors, along with the business association's loss-prevention programs, have a budget $961,000 for 2007-2008 - nearly 60 per cent of the association's entire budget.

The business association is funded through a levy imposed on the municipal property taxes of downtown commercial properties.