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Retired from city hall but not gone: The woman who made all us of see the homeless as people

May 31st, 2013 · 12 Comments

Vancouver’s official advocate for the homeless had her last day at city hall Thursday, along with her birthday.

My story about her in the Globe is here but I wanted to add a few words.

I started covering city hall for the Vancouver Sun in the fall of 1994 (when I was a toddler, of course). There wasn’t a huge amount of coverage about homelessness in Vancouver back then. An occasional story about an individual fallen on hard times. But most of the stories about homelessness in local papers in the 1980s and early 1990s were about the problem in Toronto or the U.S. or the rest of the world.

But I did start to hear concern about people starting to sleep on the street and crowded shelters throughout the mid-1990s. In 1998, I got a fellowship to study homelessness in Canada and elsewhere. Sometime around then, I went on my first walkabout with Judy Graves, then called a tenant relocation officer or some such thing. We went out near midnight, walking through various alleys and, I remember, into Cathedral Park on Dunsmuir. It had a canopy at the back end in those days, which made it a favoured spot for those sleeping out but an unnerving place to go for people like me. The square was dark and isolated-feeling. (The city later removed the canopy to discourage the campers.)

The thing about Judy was that she just wanted to know about these people. She wanted to know why they were there, how they were surviving, why they couldn’t get housing. She didn’t make assumptions. She asked questions.

Judy wasn’t the only person who alerted me to the increasing problems with homelessness. Many took up the torch. But she became a touchpoint for all kinds of people because of those middle-of-the-night walks. Frank Giustra went out with her twice. Gregor Robertson started going out on walks with her when he was still an MLA and has done others since then.

As Alice Sundberg says in my story, Judy made everyone think about “the homeless” as people, not just numbers or a social problem.

Another thing about Judy — she could do that because she started her little private research project at a time when reporters like me could call city staffers like her, people down the hierarchy but who were still allowed to speak to the media. She was always careful about what she had to say (as were almost all city staffers) but her ability to show people the reality of the issue did more than all the city manager reports in the world.

I personally regret her retirement from city hall not just because of what she did for homelessness, but because she represents a vanishing generation at the city — the knowledgeable mid-level staffer who is passionate about his or her special area of expertise, who has the detailed level of knowledge that those higher up the food chain just can’t have, and who is free to impart that to reporters in order to tell a better story about the city.




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