By Tara Henley 
BELLEVILLE – A youth homelessness advocate with first-hand experience living on the streets made a stop at Loyalist College  on Monday to talk about youth poverty and awareness.
Loyalist graduate Joe Roberts  returned to Belleville as part of his 9,000-kilometre marathon across Canada called Push for Change . He is pushing a shopping cart, a symbol of homelessness, across the country to raise funds and bring attention to the 35,000 young people living on the street in Canada.
“When we begin to understand some of the root causes that are associated with youth homelessness, that’s when we begin to have a deeper and more rounded conversation on the systemic changes that we need to make,” said Roberts during his presentation.
The idea for Push for Change came when Roberts and project co-founder Sean Richardson  were discussing ways to raise awareness of youth homelessness. Richardson mentioned famous Canadians who have run across the country to raise money for a cause, and suggested Roberts do the same with a shopping cart to represent homelessness.
“We designed a custom shopping cart and I planned my first walk from Calgary to Vancouver, 1,100 kilometres, in the summer of 2012. We were then able to learn all the things we did wrong,” Roberts said. “Then we began to look at what this would be like on a national level.”
Roberts is no stranger to homelessness. He said that after his father died, his mother remarried “an unsupportive, abusive alcoholic” and he grew resentful against his mother and new stepfather. He turned to drugs and dropped out of school after being arrested at the age of 16. During his presentation, Roberts said that from the time he was 18 until he was in his early 20s, he was living on skid row, sleeping under a bridge in downtown Vancouver.
After turning to his mother for help, Roberts said, he entered an intensive alcohol and drug treatment program in Kingston. He graduated from Loyalist College’s business marketing program and became the president and chief executive officer of Mindware Designs Communications  a few years later.
Despite his success, Roberts says, he still felt miserable. In perhaps the most emotional part of his presentation, he described relapsing 12 years after arriving in Belleville.
“In less than 12 years, I went from skid row to CEO. Do you know what happened? Nothing, because success isn’t about money,” Roberts said, his voice cracking.
“Success is about what your contribution to society, community and family is. I got to the place where I had everything I thought I wanted and I was empty. This part of the story I don’t share very often, but that’s when I relapsed, and it was something that almost took me out.”
It was during his relapse in 2007, Roberts said, that he felt he needed to be a voice for young people living on the street.
“The thought of those kids who didn’t have my mom to help them, who didn’t have that support system in place, living the way I was living – it keeps me up at night.”
Push for Change has the goal of raising 50 cents for every Canadian, a total of $17.5 million. So far it has raised close to $100,000 and Roberts has travelled over 3,200 kilometres. The marathon is set to conclude on Sept. 30 in Vancouver.
Listen below to an excerpt from Roberts’s presentation at Loyalist where he discusses his relapse.http://www.qnetnews.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/selection-from-joe-roberts-presentation.mp3