Joe Roberts used to live on the streets. He is now a successful businessman who is spending the next seven months pushing a shopping cart across Canada to raise awareness about youth homelessness. On September 22 he crossed the Long Sault Bridge in Hawkesbury, marking his first day in Ontario. He was greeted by more than 50 officers from the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP), around 220 high school students and dozens of supporters. Together the group marched from Confederate Park, to the Robert Hartley Sports Complex. The assembly was lead by the OPP Pipes and Drum Band and the streets were lined with police cruisers and officers. Inside the sports complex, dignitaries spoke to the students about homelessness and the resources that are available to at-risk youth.
Roberts, who is executive director of the “Push for Change” organization, is working to make sure that at-risk youth have support in schools. He also wants people to know that children represent more than 20 per cent of Canada’s homeless. By talking about the issue, Roberts says he hopes to help kids get off of the streets and to prevent others from landing there.
Roberts began his 9,000 kilometre trek across Canada on May 1. “It looked smaller on the map,” joked Roberts, who has travelled more than 2,841 kilometres. He still has more than 6,000 kilometres to go to meet his goal.
“It looked smaller on the map,” joked Roberts, who has travelled more than 2,841 kilometres. He still has more than 6,000 kilometres to go to meet his goal.
“We can move the wheel together. We can change and create a different kind of society to support every young person,” said Roberts, during his speech.
“You may not know this, but right now thousands of volunteers have come together because the Ontario Provincial Police are invested in your future. We as an organization are working hard towards community safety and making sure that youth transition safely into adulthood,” said Roberts.
An Ipsos Reid poll from 2013 suggests that as many as 1.3 million Canadians experienced homelessness or insecure housing issues at some point in the past five years.
These numbers don’t account for what is referred to as “hidden homelessness.” The Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness says that as many as 50,000 Canadians may be “hidden homeless” on any given night. These people are often referred to as “couch surfers,” for their tendency to temporarily stay with friends or relatives. They are surfing from house to house because they have nowhere else to live, they are living in a problematic or hostile environment, or because they have no immediate prospect of permanent housing.
Mario Gratton, who is the OPP spokesperson for the Hawkesbury police detachment told The Review that while there are few cases of youth living on the streets of Hawkesbury and surrounding areas, couch surfing is a growing concern.
“Mostly we see cases of couch surfing where they (youth) are moving from house to house and staying with friends, because they are not happy at home. Some of them we know. We know they have issues and they need our services. Representatives from Valoris, the mental health agencies, victim’s services and the Prescott-Russell Crisis Team are here today because we are in this together. If we get a call in regards to homelessness we need to work together to help the kids,” said Gratton.
The OPP is partnering with Roberts as he travels through Ontario. OPP police detachments across the province and working to raise awareness at a local and national level.
“There’s a huge connection between what Joe Roberts is doing and what the OPP do in every community across the province. We are very, very fortunate to be part of this movement and pushing to change the environment when it comes to youth homelessness,” said OPP Police Commissioner Vince Hawkes.
During the presentation ceremony in Hawkesbury, Roberts was presented with a number of cheques to support Push for Change. The United Association of Canada (UA), which represents the plumbing and pipe-fitting industry, presented Roberts with a $500,000 donation. The Quality Control Council of Canada gave $40,000, the Gretzky Foundation donated $10,000, and the OPP Police Association gave $6,000.
On September 22, the Rotary Club of Hawkesbury partnered with the Hawkesbury detachment of the OPP to host a silent auction in support of the cause. The event was held at the Hawkesbury Legion and included sports memorabilia and items donated by local businesses.