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Judy Graves (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)
Judy Graves (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)

ACTION FIGURE

Vancouver homeless advocate walks the walk Add to ...

Judy Graves

Advocate for homeless people, City of Vancouver

Judy Graves has spent 30 years walking the walk. Her strolls through the Downtown Eastside and other neighbourhoods have changed thousands of lives for the better. As designer of the city’s housing outreach program, she’ll approach someone living on the street with an offer to get them on welfare and into housing, all in a single day. Ms. Graves, 62, who has worked with homeless people since 1974, helps Vancouver’s most vulnerable navigate the bureaucratic hurdles that prevent them from getting a safe, affordable place to live. And it’s working – the city has reported that street homelessness has decreased by 82 per cent in the past three years, from 815 people to 145.

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First steps

“The housing outreach program was something I designed and piloted in 2005, and B.C. Housing funded it. I’d find someone sleeping in the street, wake them up, and ask them: If I could get you on welfare and find you a place, would you move in today? Then I’d bring them to the welfare office and guide them through the process. These days, outreach teams do most of the work, but I’ll always spend some time in the streets.”

The pitch

“The goal is that nobody should have to live on the street if they don’t want to. And pretty much no one wants to.”

Your hero

“Karen O’Shannacery [executive director of Lookout Emergency Aid Society] who just got the Order of British Columbia. She was working on the Downtown Eastside for 10 years before I got here. She started her first shelter out of an old house on Hastings Street in 1971, and has never lost her passion.”

What keeps you going?

“The thank-yous from homeless people, every single time. One guy told me, ‘You know what they’re saying about you on the street? If a lady in a blue jacket wakes you up, shut up and follow her.’ That was the best compliment I ever got!”

Advice

“Homeless people appreciate you being very direct with them. It’s extremely stressful living on the street. You have to win their trust. I start out by offering them a smoke, which would wake the dead.”

Next steps

“We’re more than halfway there. But the original project is getting overloaded, and I’d like there to be more follow-up. You become close to people while you’re housing them, and you want to find out how they are – whether they’re getting medical care, and how they’re adapting to living inside. These days, there just isn’t enough housing to meet the need. It’s easy to blame the homeless, but the real problem is that there’s no vacancy.”

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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