Vancouver's advocate for the homeless gets touching tribute at retirement party

Politicians, activists, co-workers and First Nations leader honour Judy Graves for her persistence and big heart

Ever gracious, ever humble, Judy Graves turned a night dedicated to her service as the citys homeless advocate into a tribute to the 100 people who attended her retirement party.

After being praised from former co-workers, non-profit leaders and serenaded by a former politician, Graves stood at a microphone at the Heritage Hall on Main Street Wednesday night and returned the kind words.

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There is not one single person here who has not been responsible for the literally thousands of people that we have moved in off our streets, she told a crowd that included street workers, nurses, former and current staff from the citys housing department, several city councillors and former mayor Philip Owen.

But Graves, whose daughter and grandchildren also attended, acknowledged she was enjoying the accolades on an evening that began with former city councillor Peter Ladner, guitar in hand, singing Angel of Broken Wings, a song he wrote after spending a night on the streets with Graves.

Anybody who knows me personally knows that Im an off-the-end-of-the-scale introvert, she said. My idea of a big party is two people. But Im loving this. I am so thrilled to see every single one of the people here. You are treasures in my life.

First Nations leader Jerry Adams was there. So was the citys former drug policy coordinator Donald MacPherson, Rob Turnbull and John McLernon of the Streetohome Foundation, Leslie Remund of RainCity Housing, community activist Eileen Mosca and members of the Salvation Army.

The tribute was held on Graves last day as the citys homeless advocate, a position she essentially forced the city to create after the information she collected and observations she made during her after-work hours walks on the streets.

Many in the hall Wednesday night credited Graves and her pioneering advocacy work for the reason governments opened homeless shelters, began to build housing, buy and renovate single-room-occupancy hotels and initiate homeless counts.

Even Housing Minister Rich Coleman, who didnt attend the ceremony, acknowledged Graves inspiration to eradicating homelessness in a letter that was read by host Kathryn Gretsinger.

On behalf of the Province of British Columbia, I am writing to express my gratitude for your over 30 years of service to some of this provinces most vulnerable citizens, Coleman wrote. Your work with the homeless and those at risk of homelessness in the Downtown Eastside is unparalleled and has served as an inspiration to many. Your tireless effort, gentle approach and vast knowledge has given a human face to the issue and changed thousands of lives for the better.

Coleman went on to mention that Graves was integral to the development of several government initiatives, particularly the homeless outreach program and the opening of the citys so-called HEAT shelters.

Graves, who was refreshingly outspoken for a city employee and not afraid to criticize the provincial government, was floored by Colemans comments.

How would you know that Id never done anything but give him a hard time, she said to laughs. That amazed me.

Graves' career with the city dates back to 1974 when she worked as receptionist for the Pine Free Clinic. From 1979 to 1991, she worked at Cordova House with people stricken with personality disorders, depression, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.

Allan Duncan worked with her at Cordova House and described it as a wicked and rough and tumble place, where there were fights almost daily. Thats where, Duncan said, Graves really forged her incredible kindness for disaffected and homeless people.

It was a highlight of my life to not only work there but to work with you, Duncan told Graves, who was seated in a chair at the front of the hall.

Graves left Cordova House to work for the tenants assistance program at the city. 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.

Karen OShannacery of Lookout Emergency Aid Society told a story of how she and Graves escorted then-B.C. Housing CEO Peter Robinson on an overnight walk in the streets and met homeless people.

Prior to that outing, OShannacery said, a number of organizations applied to B.C. Housing for money to build a shelter but was told by the agency that it had nothing to do with homelessness.

Five years after that journey, I talked to Peter and he told me how it impacted him unbelievably, she said, noting B.C. Housing now funds various housing and shelters. It was a team approach but my God, Judy, you opened the doors and you really illuminated issues.

The number of homeless people in Vancouver in shelters and on the street has increased steadily in the past decade. A total of 628 homeless people were recorded in 2002 and reached a high of 1,715 in 2010.

But the number of homeless people on the streets has dropped significantly, with the majority of homeless people now in some form of shelter. The citys 2013 homeless count found 273 people on the streets.

Since March 2012, social housing buildings on city property opened at Seventh and Fir, 188 East First Ave. and at 16th and Dunbar for a combined total of 242 units. The 24-unit Skwachays Healing Lodge in the Downtown Eastside also opened in June 2012.

On a night that friends and colleagues gave Graves gifts that included paintings and carvings, Vision Vancouver Coun. Kerry Jang noted what Graves dedication to solving homelessness had done for the community.

Im supposed to be giving you a gift tonight, youve given us the biggest gift you taught us, Judy, Jang said. You taught us to walk through a crowd without getting spit on, you taught us how to speak to someone without somebody talking back at us, you taught us how to do it and really connect with people.

Jangs speech was interrupted by a man who later identified himself as a concerned Vancouver resident. Brad Teeter was relentless in asking Jang whether Graves would be replaced.

After his speech, Jang told the Courier the city is considering having at least four people doing Graves work. But, as Jang pointed out, it would be a replacement of a position not the person.

If you can name me one person who has that big voice, who can do that job the way she did, then Ill hire that person, he said. But there isnt anybody. Weve looked.

Near the end of the night, a band of musicians led the crowd in singing Happy Birthday to Graves, whose retirement day also fell on her birthday.

This has all been very wonderful, she told the Courier as people lined up to wish Graves well in her retirement.

mhowell@vancourier.com

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