Vancouver is “at a crossroads” in its pursuit of bringing people in off the streets, according to the City of Vancouver’s former homeless advocate.
Judy Graves is retiring today (May 29), after more than two decades of working to house the homeless for the city. Graves believes it is “very possible” for the city to achieve its goal of ending street homelessness by 2015. She says the main obstacle is the need for new housing.
“We’ve got to very, very quickly have housing stock, and we’ve got to have something to move people in to that they can afford the rent on,” Graves told the Straight by phone. “And it’s doable. Whether they are able to raise the money is probably the big question.”
According to her, Vancouver has reached “the most manageable point of any major city in Canada”.
“If we don’t do it now, it will become unmanageable, like it is in other cities, and then we’re going to wait decades to resolve it, and we’ll just get continuously worse,” Graves stated.
She noted that when she began working in this field, there was “very, very little homelessness in Vancouver”.
“Before I was 40, anytime you’d go downtown, you would never see people sleeping on the sidewalk,” she recalled. “We were used to that if we went to San Francisco or Los Angeles, and we just thought it was a horrible American thing, so it was a big shock when we saw it in Canada, in our own city.”
The change began, she said, when property values started rising and old rooming houses around the city were torn down and replaced with apartment buildings, followed by condos.
“When I was young, it was easy to find a housekeeping room in a house in Kitsilano for about a quarter of minimum wage, and you wouldn’t dream of finding that now,” she noted.
Graves completed her last Vancouver homeless count this year, the results of which she said indicated the city is “basically holding even”.
“We’re the second most expensive city in the world, and to hold our homeless count even from one year to the next is a huge challenge, but now we have to make inroads and end homelessness,” she said.
Graves isn’t yet sure what she’ll do in retirement, but she knows she’ll continue to respond to the homeless “as a person”.
“Certainly, there’ll never be a time when I walk through the streets without noticing people,” she stated. “There won’t be a time that I won’t help somebody with the tasks of getting through the system.”
The city hasn’t hired anyone yet to replace Graves, according to the advocate.
“I would like them to have somebody take this position,” she said. “I think that you need someone who can speak truth to power within a system. At this point, the city doesn’t have a plan to do that. I think they should. But I don’t have control over that.”
While there have been “so many” memorable stories from her work with the city’s homeless population, Graves recalls the experience of one man in particular, who slept outside in Stanley Park for nearly a decade.
“Every time I’d see him, he’d be so depressed, and his clothes would be full of mildew, and he’d be curled up in this wet tent,” she recalled. “He was always wet and cold, and immobilized.”
Then all of a sudden that shifted, she recounted.
“He’s been through a number of programs, he’s now in recovery, he’s working in construction…he volunteers his time, he’s reunited with his family,” she said. “And you see what a difference that good housing and some good supports and caring will make to a human being. It makes you really happy.”