It’s not a description that can be given to a person without an assuredness the tag is appropriate, that it fits.
For Karen O’Shannacery, the executive director of the Lookout Emergency Aid Society, and Vision Coun. Kerry Jang, there is no doubt their friend is a pioneer.
Her name is Judy Graves.
She’s a pioneer, they say, because of her efforts way back when to act on behalf of the homeless and bring attention to a growing population on the streets.
She’s the reason, they believe, that senior bureaucrats, politicians at all levels of government and community leaders are more in tune with the needs of homeless people in Vancouver.
Now Graves, who’s in her early 60s, is retiring as the City of Vancouver’s homeless advocate. She announced Thursday that her last day on the job will be May 29.
“This city is not going to be the same,” said O’Shannacery, who has known Graves since the 1970s. “Judy has been a tour de force in the city.”
O’Shannacery pointed to the importance of her friend’s commitment to provide an on-the-street perspective in the dialogue on homelessness.
“She really carved this path and, as far as I know, there’s nowhere else where someone did this,” O’Shannacery said. “There’s a number of other municipalities that do it now. But Judy was really the first and it was because she was driven by a passion and her unshakeable faith that nobody should be out there [on the street].”
Jang, who is Vision’s primary councillor on the homeless file, got choked up when talking about Graves. He has relied on Graves since he was elected in 2008 to educate him with the latest information about homelessness.
“She singularly cares about getting people off the street,” he said. “She’d phone me and say, ‘We’ve got one.’ That would mean she got a person off the street into permanent housing.”
Jang said he never saw Graves more happy than when she learned an anonymous couple agreed to donate $30 million to get people off the street.
The money has gone towards redeveloping Taylor Manor, a former long-term care facility at Boundary Road and Adanac Street, into housing for 56 homeless people with mental illness.
But it’s time to retire, Graves said by telephone Thursday morning from her downtown apartment, where she watched a homeless person return to his spot in an alley.
“It’s a piece of my life, I had something to do, it’s almost done and there was just this sudden clarity and happiness about leaving,” she said, adding her decision was further confirmed after a recent meeting with a group of outreach workers from several non-profit agencies in the city. “To see them digging in and some of them getting in-depth and becoming very creative and going beyond the boundaries of their job to get the work done, it was beautiful.”
But for the city to get this point, where nonprofits and the city’s housing department are dedicated to providing solutions to homelessness, Graves had to push hard.
In fact, caring for homeless people was never in Graves’ job description, as she was told by one of her former bosses in the 1990s.
Around that time, more and more homeless people began to show up on the streets. As a member of the city’s tenant assistance program, Graves chose to go into the streets and talk directly to homeless people to get answers on the influx.
“My boss told me this was your volunteer work, not your job,” she recalled.
In the evenings and overnight, she continued to walk the streets. It wasn’t until she submitted a report in the mid-1990s to city council detailing the homelessness crisis that her volunteer work became part of her job.
Graves’ career with the city dates back to 1974 when she worked as receptionist for the Pine Street Clinic. From 1979 to 1991, she worked at Cordova House with people stricken with personality disorders, depression, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.
She applied that experience to her work on the street where in her gentle, disarming way, she got homeless people to trust her with their information to get them help, as the Courier witnessed in January 2005 during a tour of the West End with Graves.
It was after a similar tour with Graves that former NPA city councillor Peter Ladner was inspired to write a song about her titled, “Angel of Broken Wings.”
It includes the verse, “She gives out her number to suspicious stares, she’s heard all the stories of how nobody cares, the angel of broken wings mending their tears.”
Over the years, Graves has watched governments fail miserably on the homelessness file while others moved forward with positive change.
She pointed to the 14 city properties dedicated to social housing — many of which are open —and the opening of winter shelters as good moves.
The provincial government’s purchase and renovation of more than 25 single-room occupancy hotels also helped people find suitable accommodation.
But, she said, there’s still more work to do.
The city’s homeless population currently hovers around 1,600, with the majority in some form of shelter. About 200 are on the streets, according to the city’s last homeless count.
With single-room occupancy hotels full and shelters turning away homeless people, new housing is crucial to reducing the street population, Graves said.
“Most cities in North America or Europe, if they had 200 people left in the streets, they’d find them housing in a heartbeat,” she said.
When asked if she accomplished her goals over her career, she replied: “I would have liked to go with nobody left in the streets. But I can see now that, at this point, it’s just a few people’s choices which way it’ll go.”
She went on to name the city, provincial and federal governments and residents.
“We have enough goodwill in this city and we have enough money in this city that if people put their shoulder to it, we can do it in a heartbeat.”
Graves said she has no immediate plans for her retirement but wants to spend more time with her family. The City of Vancouver hasn’t said whether Graves’ position will be filled after she leaves.