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Municipal Politics

One Last Walk with Judy Graves

City of Vancouver's only full-time advocate for the homeless to retire in May.

Jackie Wong 12 Apr 2013Tyee Solutions Society

This series was produced by Tyee Solutions Society in collaboration with Tides Canada Initiatives Society. This series was made possible through the support of the Real Estate Foundation, Vancity, and BC Non-Profit Housing Association. Support for this project does not necessarily imply any funder's endorsement of the findings or contents of this report. TSS funders and Tides Canada Initiatives neither influence nor endorse the particular content of TSS' reporting. Other publications wishing to publish this story or other Tyee Solutions Society-produced articles, please see this website for contacts and information.

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'I started going out into the streets and asking people, "What happened?"' Photo by Christine McAvoy.

It's one of the first sunny days of spring, and the herons have returned to their rookery in Vancouver's Stanley Park. Judy Graves walks slowly, pausing to admire the wiry herons' nests, the new daffodils, and the fluffy cherry blossoms. The 63-year-old's nails are whimsically painted a lilac pastel that matches her goofy spontaneity and youthful inquisitiveness. "Here," she says, leading us towards the Vancouver Park Board's headquarters. We follow her to a side of the building thick with rhododendron bushes. "When I'm a homeless old woman, this is where I'll live."

It takes a moment to understand what she means. She points to a rectangular covered area with a clean white concrete floor. Short walls provide some shelter from the elements. "The people who live here are usually very organized," she says. "One man, he would cook his food out on the beach. And he just loved the flowers."

The space, so small and hidden by the wall of flowers, is easy to miss. But to Graves, it's one of countless spaces hidden in plain sight that are home to the city's homeless. They are places and people she knows well. She has spent more than half her lifetime working with Vancouver's homeless and hard-to-house, and holds the City of Vancouver's only position as an advocate for the homeless. It's a title she's held since 2010. It evolved from her work through the 1980s, '90s, and the first decade of the 2000s, as the city's tenant assistance coordinator.

Now, her days with the city are drawing to a close. She turns 64 on Wednesday, May 29, a day that will also mark her retirement from a career that has spanned over three decades. In much the same way she's approached other aspects of her life, she decided in January to leave, she says, because it simply felt right. She's not aware of any plans to replace her.

Graves isn't the type to self-aggrandize, but she believes her position should be filled. "I think it's important to have an informed advocate within the system who can speak truth to power. It's very easy for government to start believing its own spin," she says. "And it's important for government to have people they trust within their own ranks. I think it's very important, as well, that there be somebody doing the public advocacy and the teaching for the citizens as a whole."

But so far no one else at City Hall is taking on Graves' mission to educate. While she humbly notes that many others have made a positive mark on the city, few have made such a resonant impact on the individual lives of Vancouver's most vulnerable citizens. "I'm not a counter," she admits, but she estimates the people she's helped over the years to secure housing number in the thousands.

Karen O'Shannacery is a longtime friend of Graves'. She co-founded Vancouver's Lookout Emergency Aid Society in 1971 when she was 20 years old, after living on the streets as a teenager. While she believes the work should continue after her friend has retired, she doesn't expect anyone will be able to fill Graves' shoes completely. "Nobody could replace Judy," she says. "Her impact has really fostered the city taking such a leadership role in ending homelessness within the city of Vancouver, which challenges the whole region and challenges the province. I think she deserves recognition for that."

'Right away, Judy became involved'

John Ethier is one among thousands who remembers Graves' help during a difficult time in his life.

The former commercial fisher moved to Vancouver from a small town in Ontario in the 1970s. When he wasn't casting nets at sea, he, like other resource industry workers, lived in the previously abundant rooming houses downtown. He spent the '90s in the Downtown Eastside and was living in a downtown Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotel when he met Graves, who at the time was working as the city's tenant assistance coordinator.

"I met Judy in 2003 when the old Plaza Hotel on Richards was being emptied for demolition and redevelopment," he remembers. "We were approached by an agent for the owners who offered to help us relocate to the Marble Arch [Hotel]. We were told the city was closing the Plaza due to safety concerns. A call to City Hall revealed the city had no knowledge of this. We were, in fact, being scammed by the owners. Right away, Judy became involved."

Under Graves' watch, the Plaza tenants were moved to suitable accommodations. They were not displaced, as they feared.

"I still run into Judy from time to time and she always has time to stop and chat," Ethier says fondly. He now lives in seniors' social housing in Downtown South. "Judy, to me, is a person who is very passionate and dedicated about ending homelessness."

The lady in the blue coat

Graves' work has inhabited two worlds: the streets of the homeless, and the territory of politicians, bureaucrats, community leaders, and non-profit service providers.

For years, she took overnight walks through the city, connecting with people sleeping on the streets, building their trust, and walking alongside them to find and secure housing, social services, and income assistance. In the dead of night she'd appear in doorways, under bridges, and in other outdoor spaces where the homeless slept.

She'd offer a cigarette, a piece of candy, a treat for the dog. Then they'd talk, and Graves would visit again and again until the person was ready to move forward -- to a homeless shelter, onto income assistance, or into housing. People on the streets know her as "the lady in the blue coat," walking slowly through the night to find people all but lost to everyone else.

She spent her days at City Hall, reporting what she learned on her overnight excursions to the people in government who could make a difference through policy and funding. "She was able to get buy-in, persuade the powers that be to do something about it," O'Shannacery says. Graves' first reports on people sleeping on Vancouver's streets in the 1990s "made it real" to the municipal government, O'Shannacery says. "She made it personal, putting a face on people who were homeless."

Graves also persuaded authorities to see that homelessness was neither unsolvable, nor an age-old problem that has always been with us. She remembers the 1970s and '80s in Vancouver, when higher vacancy rates and affordable rooming houses kept many people off the streets.

In the 1990s, however, homelessness became visible, as two trends struck the city at one time. In 1993, the federal government completed its long withdrawal from funding social housing across Canada. Meanwhile, an influx of cocaine fueled an active open drug market in Vancouver's inner city. By 1997, Vancouver Coastal Health declared a public health emergency in the Downtown Eastside for its HIV-AIDS epidemic and high drug overdose rates.

Today, "we've got a whole generation who don't remember that homelessness is not normal," Graves says. "Anybody who was born in the late '80s would have no conscious memory of there simply not being a homelessness crisis."

Counting what didn't count to others

People view Graves' work as heroic. "Judy has been the conscience of our city," says Maxine Davis, executive director of the Dr. Peter AIDS Foundation. "I defy anyone to hear her speak about her daily connection with individuals on the streets, in parks, and under bridges and not be stirred to help make a difference." But the overnight walks for which she has become known -- and which were replicated, starting in 2002, by hundreds of volunteers in the Metro Vancouver Homeless Count -- were borne of simple curiosity.

Graves started work with the City of Vancouver as a receptionist at Kitsilano's Pine Free Clinic. She was 25 and the new mother of a baby daughter. At 30, she started a job at Cordova House, a city-owned building for difficult tenants. Then, in the early 1990s, she and other tenant support workers started to notice people sleeping on the streets.

As more people turned up on the streets, Graves felt compelled to understand a situation she figured everyone else knew more about than she. While her City of Vancouver coworkers held graduate degrees in urban planning, she had dropped out of high school. "I thought I was the only person who didn't understand this was happening," she says. "So I started going out into the streets and asking people, 'What happened? What can I do to help?'"

Against the wishes of her supervisor, who viewed her walks as a trivial hobby, Graves says, "I found the best time to do it was between two and six in the morning," she says. "The world belongs to the homeless in the middle of the night."

As word of her walks spread around the office, people started asking her for information. And as Vancouver's street homeless population grew, reporters started pressing the municipality for answers. By the late 1990s, Graves conducted Vancouver's first homeless counts on her own -- crude estimates done on hand-drawn maps.

"Judy's early street homeless counts in Vancouver demonstrated the power of hard numbers in the fight against homelessness, and doubtless inspired the first Regional Homeless Count," says urban planner Margaret Eberle. Metro Vancouver took its first large-scale homeless count in 2002 and now takes a new count every three years. The City of Vancouver has conducted its own annual count since 2010.

"Judy is the heart and soul of the Vancouver homeless count," Eberle says. "What is essentially a data collection exercise is transformed in the training sessions where Judy teaches us how to approach the homeless, and how to understand and treat the homeless with respect and compassion. Most of us emerge from these sessions with a sense of awe for Judy -- her compassion, humour, and most of all, her skills."

The counts Graves inspired have brought street homelessness into the public spotlight. "Some question the utility of homeless counts," Eberle admits. "I firmly believe in the power of defensible estimates of homelessness in shaping housing and income assistance policy, and ultimately, in addressing homelessness."

'Deal with homelessness as a disaster'

Graves' long career has seen numerous ruling parties come and go at City Hall. She admits that municipal regime changes have affected how she's been able to do her work -- "but not predictably," she says. "I certainly think that Phillip Owen was a wonderful mayor to work under. And I'm wildly impressed with the work that [current mayor] Gregor [Robertson] has done with homelessness," she says.

Beyond that, she won't indulge in the criticism or gossip that often spring only too readily from government staffers when they're ready to leave a job. "I don't believe in taking any individual on," she says. "Any of us can change our mind in a heartbeat. I don't see people as enemies." While she's not willing to spend time attacking individuals for perceived shortcomings, Graves has a striking final message for all of Canada.

Ending homelessness, she says, is probably one of the easiest problems facing cities to solve. But "until the powers -- and I don't mean just the city, I mean the province and the feds -- decide to deal with homelessness as a disaster, they could dab at it for another century and not get it done," she says.

"It could, actually, be quite easily done, very quickly. We need probably a couple of thousand units of housing. Not expensive housing. Not fancy housing. We need rooms with their own bathrooms, which is exactly what every homeless person I talk to is asking for. And beyond that, we need to look at ways of getting nutrition, good quality nutrition, to people who are very poor."

Last days on the street

After we parted ways in English Bay at the end of our afternoon together in Stanley Park, I contacted Graves again to ask if I could meet her for an overnight walk this month. She's usually open to having guests along with her. But she declined.

"Can't," she wrote. "The time in the street now is too personal. Too full of grief. Talking to people who will be still out there after I have left."

Graves has no firm plans after retirement. While she has an apartment in a West End co-op, she's not sure where she'll live next, as her daughter recently moved to Powell River. As has been the case with other events in her life, things will happen, she says, when the time is right. "I probably have survived by rolling downhill like water into a stream," she says, laughing.

One sure thing is she'll be dearly, sadly missed. Especially by those who will no longer be visited in the night by the lady in the blue coat, with whom they'll stay up late smoking, talking, helping each other understand.  [Tyee]

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