Once a homeless teen, man completes 9,100 km shopping cart push back to Vancouver
After 517 days, Joe Roberts tells Metro why he walked across-Canada back to the B.C. streets once his home—to end homelessness for good
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After Joe Roberts left home at 15 over a family conflict, he remembers spending the rest of his teens on East Vancouver's streets, "chronically homeless," he recalled, "dropping out of high school as drugs and alcohol followed … and pushing a shopping cart to collect cans and bottles."
Three decades later, as homelessness worsens across Canada, the 50-year old is about to finish pushing his shopping cart back to the Vancouver streets he once called home — all the way from St. John's, Newfoundland.
It took him 16 months to walk the 9,100 kilometres, with some side jaunts to the country's far north, but he'll officially end his trip in Vancouver this Friday with a series of events — and an invitation for Vancouverites to join his journey's homestetch.
"I was able to look at my life and ask, 'What can I contribute? What can I give back?" the successful entrepreneur told Metro in a phone interview. "Well, I have a story — one that points to what we need to do to get long-term homelessness solutions in this country."
Roberts is executive director of The Push for Change, an organization he co-founded to push for "Housing First" policies to solve the country's worsening homelessness crisis.
It's a model that's been praised for rapidly reducing or even ending homelessness in cities that implement it — most famously Medicine Hat, Alta., but also several U.S. towns — by prioritizing "a rapid and direct move from homelessness to housing," explains the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness on its website, "instead of requiring people to graduate through a series of steps before getting into permanent housing."
The idea is based on the principles of getting people into immediate, permanent housing, providing "wrap-around" social services needed to stay housed, while offering a sense of choice and "social inclusion," and not requiring them to be addiction-free or participate in any programs before being allowed housing, as many current programs do.
One city that he visited was Medicine Hat, where he learned about how that city is evolving and adapted Housing First even further, after dramatically curbing homeless rates.
"Medicine Hat actually entered Housing First reluctantly — initially the community were naysayers," he learned from the city's mayor and its ending-homelessness committee. "But now they're big fans, and many experts around the world are using them as a model and asking, 'How did they do it?'
"Their reduction numbers were off-the-charts good in ways we haven't seen before … Now several years into it, they understand that they have to follow it up with more wrap-around services."
Robert's journey didn't just take him to hundreds of schools and events in every province and territory, but also raised funds for the advocacy organization Raise the Roof.
"We wanted to align with what smart people were saying to government and policymakers, and not be just another grassroots thing that was rogue," he explained. "We wanted to amplify those solutions.
"We've for too long in this country left the problem of solving homelessness to the people there to serve the homeless. Vancouver's a perfect storm: 20 years of receding services combined with a housing shortage and poor investments."
He warned that Canada's "not slowing the flow of people becoming homeless, whether through family breakdown, mental health issues, drug addiction or a lack of housing." He called for more prevention measures in schools, better exit strategies especially for youth on the streets, and every community to embrace some local variation of the Housing First model.
Asked about his biggest learning from 16 months pushing his cart once again, he said it's from the "inspring communities" and schools that invited him to speak.
"There's a lot to be proud of in Canada, and not just the mountains, oceans and natural splendour," he mused as his trip neared its end. "It's the people and their values, too.
"But we can do a better job so kids don't end up on the streets. That's where we've failed as a country … How we end it is to change our response. We need to make a shift."
He invited Vancouverites to join him for the homestretch on Friday— either walking his final nine kilometres starting 8 a.m. from Confederation Park in Burnaby (corner of Alpha Avenue); the last 3.5 kilometres at 10 a.m. from No Frills (1460 East Hastings St., Vancouver); or his ultimate kilometre with a bagpipe band at 11 a.m. from Victory Square (200 West Hastings St.).