News / Vancouver

Vancouver’s homeless advocate Judy Graves retires with belief city can house everyone

Judy Graves knows better than most that no one winds up on the streets without a series of tragedies.

She’s walked Vancouver’s streets after midnight for decades wearing her blue raincoat, waking and talking to thousands of people sleeping outside to hear their stories and try to help them find housing.

As she retires after 39 years with the city on Wednesday, her 64th birthday, Graves leaves behind streets with far fewer people seeking shelter in doorways and a belief that number could – and should – be zero.

“The barrier to housing people is that we don’t have housing for them, we don’t have housing they can afford,” she said on Tuesday, adding the federal government needs to step up to help build more housing and settle Aboriginal land claims. “It’s probably the easiest problem to solve.”

Graves, the only city employee to hold the position of advocate for the homeless, got involved with housing issues after being horrified to see people sleeping outside as a young hippie travelling in the U.S. She’s responsible for designing Vancouver’s homeless count and housing outreach program.

The stories from her after-hours walks, where she’s known to bring candy, cigarettes and a stack of business cards, helped shape governments’ and organizations’ views by putting a face on homelessness, Streetohome CEO Rob Turnbull said.

Graves’ ability to connect people – walking with her “is like going downtown with the pope or the queen,” Turnbull said – has had a “tremendous impact” on how different organizations work together to build housing with appropriate supports.

The city doesn’t plan to fill Graves’ position, though she thinks it should. While she plans to sleep in on Thursday and travel to France in the fall, don’t be surprised if you see her on a midnight walk post-retirement.

She simply wants people to sleep inside, safely.

“We all want a beautiful city, and in order to have a beautiful city it has to be good for everyone,” she said. “We don’t all have to be well to do, but we all have to be able to survive.”

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