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A Downtown Ambassadors program aimed at keeping city streets safe is discriminatory and should be shut down, advocacy groups claim in a human-rights complaint filed yesterday.

The complaint filed against the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association and Civil City commissioner Geoff Plant claims the program, established in May, 2000, to patrol the downtown area and address "street disorder," further marginalizes a population that already struggles with poverty, addiction and disabilities.

The complaint asserts that by telling people sleeping or loitering on the street to "move along," and by identifying and monitoring "undesirable" people, the security guards acting as downtown ambassadors impair the dignity of aboriginal people and people with disabilities who comprise a disproportionate number of the city's homeless and addicts, and deny them equal access to public space.

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The complainants - Pivot Legal Society, the United Native Nations and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users - are calling on the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal to force the city and the business association to cease the program, ensure their staff receive "appropriate anti-discrimination training" and pay up to 1,000 homeless people $20 each as a token financial compensation.

Laura Track, a lawyer with Pivot Legal, said if the complaint is successful, it could be "precedent-setting" by protecting marginalized groups within the homeless population. The Downtown Ambassadors program is administered by the business association, which contracts out to Genesis Security. A written statement issued by the business association stated it is "confident its highly successful Downtown Ambassador program will be vindicated in response to an apparent complaint filed against it."

The city voted in April to contribute more than $230,000 toward the program, allowing the red-uniformed guards to patrol the downtown area 24 hours a day starting this summer. Council is pursuing a proposal to give the program as much as $500,000 to help it expand to other parts of the city.

Mr. Plant heads up Project Civil City, an initiative to reduce crime on city streets and get rid of "social disorder" problems such as panhandling and homelessness. He feels he shouldn't be included in the complaint because the city doesn't run the program and hasn't yet signed any agreements to fund it.

"Frankly, if they have facts that support allegations of discriminatory conduct on the part of the ambassadors, I wish they had brought them to my attention or the city's attention....They just chose instead to get a headline slamming my reputation without any foundation," he said.

Project Civil City has been a major part of Mayor Sam Sullivan's term as mayor, and Non-Partisan Association mayoral candidate Peter Ladner has made it an integral part of his campaign.

Mr. Sullivan said the ambassadors program and the Civil City project are compassionate and are helping the homeless.

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