Vancouver’s Homeless Population

There are any number of agencies trying to address the homelessness issue. And then there's Judy Graves.

August 25, 2015

 

Walking along South Granville this morning, the two homeless men who reside outside a high-end women’s clothing store were talking on their cell phones about how they each earned over $100 yesterday. We were reminded of Judy Graves and her plight to help Vancouver’s downtrodden. VM

This article was originally published in the December 2011 issue of Vancouver Magazine.

They met eight years ago, when Judy Graves was walking through a West End alley. “When you’re ready,” she told him, “give me a call.” Last week he did. “I still drink like a fish,” Jim warned her, “but I’m off drugs, and I want a home.”

Now, they’re lighting cigarettes outside the brick welfare building at the corner of Main and Powell. They’ve already had breakfast and filled out an application, and they’re back to pick up a downpayment for his room. They have the same grey-brown hair—his in a navel-length beard, hers in a dishevelled bob—and they have a giddy sense of shared mission, like a couple getting their first mortgage.

“I’ve been homeless for nine years, and I’ve got to answer 68 questions?”
“About your investments, and your real-estate properties!” she says.
“And my trust fund!”

Later, as they wait for their appointment, he jokes that he’ll probably wait at the pearly gates while someone tells him sorry, we lost your form.

“No, that would be hell,” Graves says. “Heaven, you should be able to talk your way into.”

Most elements of Jim’s story are familiar to Graves. He was once a foreman at a logistics plant in Guelph, Ontario, that shipped a million pounds of parts a night to General Motors factories. For almost a decade now he’s made a living collecting and returning bottles. Alcoholics tend to go downhill. He’s lost some teeth, and oral decay can migrate to the heart. Breathing in car fumes at street level can cause emphysema and other lung diseases. But he’s unusually intelligent and has retained an excellent memory.

She finds it interesting to hear him go back and forth between the intellectual understanding of his addiction and the befuddlement of not being able to act on it. She loves his blond eyelashes, and thought it was hilarious and deeply moral when he said, technically, he’s never stolen anything. She figures that West Enders have been kind to him because he’s so likable. She’s seen the overhang behind a hair salon where he negotiated a place to sleep, and it’s swept clean. She has no doubt he’ll be a good tenant.

When Jim left his last room, he knew that if he applied for welfare he’d be asked if he’s capable of working. If I can push a shopping cart up and down alleys for 12 hours a day, he thought, I’m capable of working. He wouldn’t take money he didn’t deserve until he really needed it.

Now he does. At 56, he’s had enough. He could never endure lineups and application forms and interviews without Graves. She says one of the benefits of doing her job for so long is that you don’t take things at face value. If someone says they want to live outside, you wait. Eventually they’ll call.

***

It’s a misleadingly bureau­cratic title—“Advocate for the Homeless, City Hall”—to give a woman who inspires awe. “There are politicians, bureaucrats, executive directors of nonprofit organizations, poverty activists,” says Rich Coleman, B.C.’s former housing minister. “And then there’s Judy Graves. Nobody knows the Downtown Eastside like her.” She has an honorary doctorate from both UBC and Corpus Christ/St. Mark’s College, but she’s a high-school dropout who says everything she knows about homelessness has come from people like Jim.

She usually wears a black raincoat with a flare below the waist and a ruffle at the collar. She walks almost everywhere; bad eyesight bars her from a driver’s licence. She moves slowly, with a bit of a lilt, thinking, noticing. In her little knapsack she often carries a knitting project and a digital camera, which she uses to snap street dwellers or funny things like two cats in the front window of a Hastings cannabis shop.

If she’s a prophet, as many people have called her, she’s a wily one—in the system but somehow not of it. “Judy speaks truth to power,” says former Vancouver drug policy coordinator Don MacPherson. “You really can’t argue with her.” Former mayor (now senator) Larry Campbell agrees. “People come before council all the time, but Judy gets right inside your heart.” She was one of the people to inspire Gregor Robertson to run for mayor and to promise to end street homelessness by 2015. He calls her “part angel, part salt-of-the-earth friend.”

She doesn’t rail or accuse. She walks. And you can walk with her. She knows the doorways and overhangs where people sleep, and when she coaxes their heads out of sleeping bags with cigarettes, she usually knows them, too. “You walk those same streets during the day and you wouldn’t know that this whole society was there. It was a real wake-up call,” says Frank Giustra, the mining financier and philanthropist, who contacted Graves when he got involved with the Streetohome Foundation. “I was taken aback by her gentle approach—how she managed to get the information she needed and help people at the same time.”

John McLernon, cofounder of the Colliers Macaulay Nicolls Group and first chair of Streetohome, had a similar experience. “You think going through alleys at night will be scary. But I think the most frightening thing we saw was a skunk.” Larry Campbell walked as well. “She took me down to the beach by the harbour, and there was a clump of discarded logs and branches. There was a guy living in it. It was a home.”

To McLernon, she’s a modern-day Florence Nightingale, working in the trenches with the sick and destitute. To ex-cop Rich Coleman, she’s Bobby Orr, the superstar player who gives credit to the team. To the once-temperamental Larry Campbell, she’s Mother Teresa. “To be with her,” he says, “is humbling.”

She was born in Toronto in 1949; her parents, Frank and Thelma Goudron, moved to a single room in her grandmother’s house in Vancouver in 1951. Her father, an Air Force medic, was stationed in Europe during the war and later worked in administration. The family moved to an East Vancouver subdivision built for the families of returning soldiers, and Graves went to school with a huge cohort of baby boomers.

Through the late 1960s and the 1970s she attended demonstrations. She was a bit of a failure as a hippie because the drugs didn’t agree with her. When she tried to burn an American flag during an anti-Vietnam march, she realized that there’s more involved than flicking a Bic. During the height of the Vietnam War she’d meet U.S. draft dodgers living in snowy Stanley Park and bring them back to her West End rooming house to sleep on the floor. She witnessed police clubbing demonstrators like baby seals. Now, when she crosses the lobby of the Woodwards building to go to her second-floor office, passing under Stan Douglas’s mural depicting the 1971 Gastown riots, she feels uneasy.

In 1974 she went to work as a receptionist at a free medical clinic. She was single when her daughter was born, and her manager told her to bring the baby to work so she wouldn’t lose her job. Two weeks after the birth, she did. Five years later she started a job at Cordova House, a residence built and run by the city for difficult tenants. She made sure people ate, did laundry, got to their appointments, took their meds.

Expo 86 brought world-class drug dealers to the city, displacing the little pushers with a distinguished upsell strategy: strong, cheap heroin to hook the alcoholics followed by expensive heroin, cheap cocaine, strong and expensive cocaine, cheap crack. Violence, crime, and addiction rates spiked. Graves remembers an old aboriginal guy who spent his days in Oppenheimer Park and returned to the building one day with a knife in his eye.

In 1991 she was hired by city hall to help seniors, disabled people, and single parents find housing and get services. The federal government was ending its role in social housing. Condos were transforming the city, rental housing was shrinking, rooming houses were disappearing. Vulnerable people had started to drop out the bottom.

***

By the early 1990s, AIDS had grown into an epidemic and Graves was vol­unteering with the BC Persons With AIDS Society, helping people find housing. It was an intense time; she met a whole new group of friends, most of whom died. Irene Goldstone got to know Graves in the medical wards at St. Paul’s Hospital, and they worked together on a committee looking at how to house a new breed of patient: those with multiple diagnoses, including AIDS, mental illness, and addiction.

“Sometimes you’re taking a problem to a system and there’s one individual who’s responsible, and you have to do a lot of groundwork to get them to grasp the issues,” says Goldstone. “Well, Judy already knew more about what we were talking about than we did. She understood the connection between housing and health. She had tangible suggestions about building our base of committed people and the kind of lobbying that needed to be done.”

Homeless numbers continued to rise, and in the early 2000s she noticed young men with brand-name glasses and down sleeping bags on the streets of Yaletown. They were victims of the dot-com crash who had been paying back student loans when their jobs disappeared. “They were lovely,” she recalls, “but not very pragmatic.”

In 2002, the city did its first homeless count. Graves made maps for volunteers, using laundry pens to point to the places under evergreen trees and atop staircases where, she knew, people lived. The count was done in the spring, just as the Campbell government started tightening welfare eligibility requirements. Within three weeks, Graves noticed more people sleeping outside. That summer, the stories changed. It was no longer about trying to save rent money. People were getting cut off welfare, evicted, and had nowhere to go. Graves started her overnight walks.

In 2005 the homeless count almost doubled. It tracks both street homeless and sheltered homeless across the region, and Vancouver’s was 1,291. The population had shifted from a few mentally ill and addicted people to a much broader demographic. Three-quarters of the people sleeping outside had no income at all. The city was asked for ideas for a pilot project on homelessness. But when Graves submitted her plan for outreach, she heard back that this was “case-finding,” and they were cutting cases.

Every day she got letters about the homeless, particularly those in the West End. She knew this reality well—she’d have to step over sleeping bags to get in to Melriches coffee shop at Bute and Davie where she’d meet her priest. At night, when she’d visit the homeless, they were trying to stay awake with crystal meth. It was chaos.

She thought about quitting city hall; it was just abuse to talk to these people and not be able to help them. Pissed off, she left her office one afternoon and went to Melriches for a coffee and a piece of cake. She wrote everything on sticky notes: what wasn’t working, how to improve it. She spent the afternoon rearranging the notes. What she came up with was a plan for outreach: grab a person from the sidewalk at 6 a.m., feed them, take them to the welfare office, go find a room, come back to the office for the rent cheque, take it back to the landlord, move the person in. The welfare office would have to open early—that was the improbable part.

Miraculously, the welfare ministry said yes. Two weeks later, she started out with volunteer Jim Deva of Little Sister’s bookstore, two mornings a week. By the end of November they had mopped up the whole corner. Next she went under the Burrard Bridge. “It was so cold, they were sleeping like sardines,” she recalls. “I’d try so hard to get the first guy awake, I’d wake up six more, and they’d say, ‘Take me, too!’ ” The key, she found, was breakfast. People are well-behaved once they’re fed.

The minister, Claude Richmond, called a local welfare office to see how it was going. The police in the Downtown Eastside started asking for the program, so she trained more workers. It grew. “It was wonderful,” she says, “because people in higher positions don’t see the day-to-day street, they don’t talk to homeless people, and they just completely don’t get it. If I go into a Grade 5 class and say, ‘What do homeless people need?’ The whole class will yell, ‘A home!’ If I go into the senior bureaucracy and say, ‘What do homeless people need?’ they start talking about getting research done.For me, it’s like, No, you peel ’em off the sidewalk and you tuck ’em in, and if they come out, then you peel ’em off the sidewalk and you tuck ’em in, and there’s actually a name for that—it’s called rapid rehousing. I figure third time lucky: so you do it, do it, do it, and it’s done.”

Outreach programs based on her model now run in 49 communities across B.C., including nine programs for aboriginal groups. BC Housing provides annual funding of $7 million across the province for immediate and long-term assistance to the homeless. Since April 2010, over 3,000 street homeless have been provided with stable housing all over British Columbia. BC Housing also provides $1 million in rent supplements to help people at risk of homelessness. “All of our senior bureaucrats and politicians believed in the world from when they were young,” she says. “When things got tough in the city you could go to a small town or the ’burbs. But the outreach demonstrated that many communities in B.C. have absolutely no vacant, cheap rental housing.”

Wendy Pederson, a community organizer with the Carnegie Community Action Project, calls the outreach program “nothing to brag about.” A report done by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives states that there’s been only a meagre increase of 280 social housing units built in B.C. between 2005 and 2010. She says the most important work Graves does is to push for systemic changes like increases in welfare rates and a national housing policy.

“It’s frustrating because we shouldn’t be in that situation in the first place where people are denied welfare,” says Pederson. “It’s a good idea to do outreach in the meantime, but it’s not the answer. The answer is to make welfare easily available and adequate so that people don’t fall through the cracks. I think the whole ‘ministering to those who are the most desperate’ is a pathetic response, and I think it’s what our government wants to put its money into, rather than a decent social safety net.”

Listening to that quote, Graves says, “Absolutely. We will always need outreach on some level, for people like Jim, but we shouldn’t have hundreds of people on the street. I agree with her. Isn’t she smart?” (Graves makes some sort of complimentary remark about almost everyone I mention.) Yes, I say, but Pederson’s firebranding style seems so often negative. She nods. “She’s wonderfully articulate, but she’s younger than I am. Every year you stay with this the picture gets bigger and rounder, right? As she spends more time on the street, her vision will grow. She’ll become better than I am.”

In 2006, Rich Coleman introduced Housing Matters B.C., an ambitious social housing strategy. Graves liked its many different approaches. “I’ve never voted for the Liberals in my life,” she says, “but when you see someone doing something effective, you have to praise them.” The strategy included support for vulnerable people, including kids coming out of foster care, aboriginals, and seniors. Since 2007, the province has also acquired 21 rundown SROs (for nearly $70 million) and renovated them (for $42 million). In 2007, Coleman and then-mayor Sam Sullivan agreed to build supportive housing on 14 city-owned sites. Seven are in the Downtown Eastside; of these, three are occupied and another is under construction. The Streetohome Foundation, which counts Frank Giustra as a board member, has committed $20 million toward provincial social housing projects.

Would these positive changes have happened without the international attention of the 2010 Olympics or the real-estate interests in the Downtown Eastside? “Those were two wonderful motivators,” Graves says. “I don’t think they were the only motivators. I also think of people like [community activist and onetime mayoral candidate] Jim Green, who’s been working on this issue since I was wet behind the ears.” New developments like the Woodwards building do contribute to homelessness, she says, because they raise land value and make surrounding buildings more attractive to other uses. But it’s inevitable: old buildings need renewal.

In early 2008, with more than 800 people sleeping outside, then-MLA Gregor Robertson went walking with Graves. He remembers her despair at seeing 10 people sleeping in an alcove where there used to be one or two. “Seeing places I knew through her eyes was illuminating,” he says. “It gave me a whole new perspective on the depth of the crisis.” She convinced him there were concrete things that could be done. The overarching philosophy was disaster response. The first priority: getting people inside.

Soon after Robertson was elected in November 2008, with seven of 10 council seats going to Vision Vancouver, the city opened four HEAT (Homeless Emergency Action Team) shelters in city-owned buildings, with staffing provided by the province.

“In the street there’s a morality about, ‘I don’t take for myself what I can’t give to my friends,’ ” says Graves, “and the shelters take people in one individual at a time. But when the HEAT shelters were opened, the outreach workers targeted a whole group and said, ‘We’re opening at 2 tomorrow—bring all your buddies, and you can stay together.’ Bam—we got all the youth that had been on the street since they were 13.”

The city also loosened policies, allowing people to bring dogs, shopping carts, and bicycles. Setting a goal to end homelessness, she says, was absolutely necessary. There has also been direction for every city department to treat homelessness as a priority. “For the first time,” she says, “I felt like I had the wind at my back.”

BC Housing had already improved the shelters with more staff, better food, and a new policy of allowing people to stay until they find permanent housing. “While they stay there you get them healthy and clean enough so you can present them to a landlord, or get them into treatment,” Graves says. “If they’re outside, they don’t have a hope.”

***

When the 2011 homeless count numbers come out, Graves thinks there’s been a dreadful mistake: Vancouver’s total is about the same as 2008, but the street homeless have dropped from 811 to 145; now the bulk (1,460) are in some kind of shelter. She phones all the agencies she can think of and asks for rough numbers, and a pattern emerges. Then she goes walking. She hears the same story everywhere: there used to be eight people sleeping here; now there’s one.

Michael Clague, former director of the Carnegie Centre, is cautiously optimistic. “The welcome drop must not be used to mask the fact that behind that is a massive number of people who are at risk and who’ll be moving into street homelessness unless we get sufficient permanent housing up.” The economic payoffs of solving homelessness, he points out, are well-documented: a chronically homeless person costs $50,000 a year in health, policing, ambulance, court, and shelter costs, whereas housing one person costs about $30,000.

Graves agrees. That’s what I mean, she says, about having a thumb in the dike. She’s thinking about her next fight, which will be to ensure homeless people actually get into the housing built for them. She often sees new rooms filled with people moving down from cheap housing to subsidized housing, a function of the city’s suffocating rental squeeze. “The whole system fights against you,” she says. “Nonprofits, Coastal Health, BC Housing—because there’s a bias that homeless people will not be good tenants, and that’s completely not true.”

At 62, Graves thinks she can retire happy in three years. What she will do in retirement? Play with her grandchildren, maybe learn to crochet. But there’s one more walk she wants to do before she leaves, this one with high school and university students. “Look around,” she’ll say. “This is what your city should look like. You’ll notice there’s nobody sleeping there. If you start seeing homeless people again, you’ll know that something’s wrong. Fix it.”

***

Three weeks after their date at the welfare office, Jim is still living outside. The room he was promised in a city-run building on Cordova was still occupied by someone else while a leak was fixed. Graves is worried about him; his move-in date has been delayed three times. “I’m trying to turn my life around!” he’s been ranting to friends, “and my hopes have been dashed.”
When Graves shows up outside the West End McDonald’s he frequents, he mellows out. She assures him that his room will be ready tomorrow, and he rests his head against the handle of his shopping cart and weeps. “Don’t come by tomorrow,” he says. “I’ll be too emotional.”

Two days later, she stops by his fifth-floor room. His sleeping bag is spread out along one wall, and a novel is splayed open on a camping chair. Two shiny pots are stacked on the portable burner, and a pile of new dishes sits beside the sink. Jim, the gracious host, is wearing a new black T-shirt and a crisp pair of blue jeans. The windows provide a framed view of the Science World sphere rising over the Georgia Street viaduct. He poses beside the window, and in her photo each strand of his combed beard is lit up like a filament.

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