Ask Joe Roberts about the worst part of homelessness, and he’ll tell you it’s not the cold or the rain. It’s the isolation.
“You’re seeing a world going on around you, but you’re not actually part of that world,” he says. “[You feel] invisible as you’re sitting on the sidewalk and people are walking by, going about their business.”
It’s a feeling Roberts knows all too well. For close to three years in his early twenties, the Barrie, Ont. native lived homeless on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, wrestling with an addiction to drugs and alcohol — an addiction which, at his lowest, led to Roberts selling his only pair of boots for $10 worth of heroin.
“[Heroin] was a drug that shut me down emotionally. The problem is, it’s highly addictive, it has an increasing tolerance, and it’s not a cheap thing. My life became consumed with [getting the next fix].” – Joe Roberts
Now over 20 years sober and after finding success as the CEO of a multimedia company, it’s a feeling he hopes no other young Canadian will have to experience — and a cause for which he spent the better part of the past two years pushing a shopping cart over 9,000 kilometres across Canada. Starting in May of 2016, Roberts set off from St. John’s, Newfoundland and continued his way across the country for 517 days before arriving in Vancouver on September 29th, 2017. In total, he walked over 450 half-marathons along the way.
“The truth is, I’m a community investment gone correct,” says Roberts. “You know, most of us when we were growing up had that defining moment where our lives could’ve gone sideways. But because we had good people in our lives, we were afforded the ability to make a mistake or two, and it didn’t create dire consequences in our lives. But the truth is that not all families are created equal.”
“The whole walk across Canada was to raise dollars and awareness to support a conversation of what we need to do to better support and create prevention models that catch kids early so they don’t end up on the street pushing a shopping cart.” – Joe Roberts
“The shopping cart was that symbol of chronic homelessness — the thing we’re trying to avoid for kids,” he adds. “In the 1980s, I was one of those guys pushing a shopping cart around the Downtown Eastside.”
Along his journey, Roberts met with the Prime Minister of Canada, spoke at WE Day, and did over 450 presentations, often speaking to children about his journey. Dubbed The Push for Change, his mission is one that connects right back to his time spent on the street — and one that continues, even after the walk across Canada is over.
“The greatest gift that you can give somebody who is experiencing homelessness is to see them. To engage with them. They have a story,” says Roberts. “We need to get to a place where we better understand what the issues are, and then we won’t be judging a person who’s sitting on a piece of cardboard and going through that experience.”