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British Columbia ‘Irreplaceable’ champion of Vancouver homeless changed way people see those who live on the street

Homeless advocate Judy Graves hugs Downtown Eastside resident Shawn, who she has known for 17 years, after stopping to talk to him on the street on May 28, 2013.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

The woman who made everyone understand that homelessness is about people, not just numbers, is working her last day as Vancouver's official "advocate for the homeless."

And the city will not replace Judy Graves, much to her dismay.

"I keep telling them the city should retain that position. There's something powerful that happens when someone on staff can speak truth to power," said Ms. Graves, who is retiring on Wednesday at 64. She started work with the city in 1991 as a relocation officer for people being evicted and became the city's patron saint of quiet homeless activism. "But this is not something I have any control over, so I have to let it go."

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She is not leaving, however, without expressing her disappointment over the decision to let her role disappear.

That is typical for Ms. Graves, who calls them like she sees them, even though she has praised Vision Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson frequently for his efforts to get people off the street.

Her boss, community-services manager Brenda Prosken, said staff decided Ms. Graves was irreplaceable.

"It would be unfair to anyone to ask them to try to fill Judy's shoes."

Ms. Prosken said the department is shifting towards a "team" approach, with about eight people who will do outreach.

That group will focus less on finding out where homeless people are, because Ms. Graves' work of the past two decades helped establish that, Ms. Prosken said. Instead, they will do more work to make sure that people who get places in shelters or housing are not put back on the street.

Ms. Graves has left the city a plan to ensure that the people still homeless are housed. She will not talk about the details. "It's up to them to do it. At this point, it's not that hard."

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Ms. Graves' work with the homeless started in 1979, when she began a job at the health department helping people who were hard to house find places to live. They were gradually being pushed out of the West End and Fairview as rooming houses were knocked down for new developments. The Downtown Eastside's residential hotels seemed like the best solution.

But a couple of years after Ms. Graves shifted over to working with the city's housing department in 1991, she started to see people actually sleeping outside – something she did not think was possible in Canada.

She got curious about what was happening, perplexed by it and assuming she was the only one who was.

"I'd flunked out of high school and everyone around me [at the city] had masters and doctorates, so I thought I was the only one who didn't understand."

She started doing what she called walkabouts in 1993, going out later and later at night trying to figure out who was homeless and who was just hanging around.

She discovered in her post-midnight walks that people were living in parking garages all through the West End, in alleys behind Granville Street, in Cathedral Park downtown and dozens of other places. And she started introducing reporters, politicians and philanthropists – including Frank Giustra – to those people by talking them along.

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Alice Sundberg, who has worked on low-cost housing and homelessness for years, said Ms. Graves changed the way people saw those who live on the street. "She really made it a more human kind of issue. With her, you saw that each person had a story. Her compassion made us all be more compassionate."

If anyone was hoping that Ms. Graves will fade into the background, that seems unlikely. Asked if she might be even more outspoken, now freed from a job, she answered: "I might be."

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