PATH CEO Joel John Roberts: A Life Dedicated to Fighting Homelessness

Joel John Roberts, CEO of PATH (People Assisting the Homeless), is a nationally renowned leader in the provision of services to homeless people. He is also an unrelenting activist in initiatives to end homelessness.

PATH is a family of nonprofit organizations providing support services, shelter and housing to approximately 12,000 disenfranchised people every year.

The number of homeless Americans has grown over the past three decades to nearly a million people despite the widespread adoption of five and ten year plans to end this national disgrace.

Critics argue that homeless service agencies have been managing this condition for decades, not resolving it. Roberts believes that the United States has, in effect, institutionalized homelessness.

Spare Change News invited Roberts to comment on this rapidly increasing social and humanitarian crisis. In a series of telephone conferences, he began by tracing the history of contemporary practices in combating homelessness back to the 1980s when an increase was first noted in the number of homeless people in the United States, most of whom were adult men.

The prevailing thinking at that time, he recalled, was that if homeless people were provided with simple options like food and shelter, they would be able to find their way back to housing stability.

Thirty years later, it is obvious that this model remains astonishingly ineffective.
Some people have been homeless for twenty years or longer.

In recent years, many seniors and teenagers have become homeless.

Women and children account for a very high percentage of homeless people

It is not unusual for an entire family to be homeless at this point in time.

Roberts is adamant that our nation’s views with respect to providing services to homeless people need to evolve. “The future is not a warehouse full of bunk beds,” he stated. “Thirty years later, homeless people should not be living the same way. We cannot offer them the same old deal.”

“Over the past thirty years,” he continued, “people have viewed homelessness as part of the fabric of our environment.” In other words, we have grown accustomed to this catastrophe over time.

Roberts is optimistic about the future, however. “Our nation’s younger generation does not accept this view and believes instead that this is not right.”

In addition, outraged private individuals and small groups in many areas of our country have launched humanitarian initiatives on their own to help resolve this rapidly expanding disaster.

Roberts compares the much needed evolution in our nation’s approach to ending homelessness to changes in our practices for renting movies:

Initially, we rented video tapes at outlets like Blockbuster. Next, we ordered CD’s from companies like Netflix and had them mailed to us. Eventually, it became possible to order movies directly onto our television sets. Now, we can download movies and watch them on a number of devices.

Roberts’ point, of course, is that our homeless services practices need to evolve proficiently as well. “We need to be proactive and not reactive in dealing with issues related to homelessness.”

As an example, Roberts is affiliated with the nationwide 100,000 Homes campaign which mobilizes volunteers across the country to go out into their communities, locate and identify the most vulnerable homeless people in their areas, and house them in available apartments.

Roberts is also a proponent of the “Housing First” model wherein homeless people are housed and surrounded by a wide array of services to help restore them to health and sobriety, to the degree achievable. Unlike in the past, they do not have to be clean and sober to qualify.

Joel John Roberts is an extremely compelling role model for the concepts that he espouses.

Abandoned at age two in a Hong Kong orphanage, he was discovered there by his adoptive parents and brought to the United States where they raised him as their own in Long Beach, California.

As Roberts explains it, during his youth there was a charity run by the Christian Children’s Fund (now ChildFund International) which encouraged American sponsors to commit to helping homeless, impoverished orphans overseas by mailing a small monthly check to the organization.

Roberts was a beneficiary of this program and he remains deeply affected by the circumstances of his abandonment and adoption. “That act of charity altered my life,” he wrote, “Dramatically.”

Strongly influenced while growing up in a family dedicated to community service, it was an incident that occurred when he was twenty years old that firmly launched his career trajectory.

During a trip to Egypt, Roberts learned that some beggars in Cairo cut off one of their hands in order to appear more pitiable and thereby earn more as beggars.

Shocked at the horror of such desperation, Roberts committed immediately to his life’s work helping to lift people out of poverty and to restoring as many as possible to productive lives.

Joel John Roberts has been at the forefront of initiatives to combat poverty and homelessness ever since, not only in the provision of direct services but also in speaking out about related issues.

Because he didn’t believe that people were writing about what was really going on and because he wanted to help personalize disenfranchised people, he embarked on three initiatives:

He founded the Poverty Insights blog and became one of our nation’s first bloggers on the topic of homelessness

He wrote the highly regarded, tongue-in-cheek handbook on homeless policy change entitled How to Increase Homelessness

He became a regular contributor to the Huffington Post on poverty and homelessness

Roberts has long been outspoken in emphasizing that charitable acts of kindness like feeding, clothing and sheltering homeless people are vastly insufficient and he feels very strongly that homeless service agencies should have started building more affordable housing infrastructure long before our nation’s homeless population grew so extensively. “If every homeless services agency created affordable housing,’ he commented, “…it would not put them out of business.”

To that end, he created PATH Ventures six years ago in order to build affordable housing using tax credits, loans and grants. This organization is very close now to meeting its initial goal of constructing 1000 units of low and very low income housing within five years. The agency has raised nearly one-third of a billion dollars in capital funding.

Roberts also pointed out that homeless services agencies own land and buildings which can be repurposed. As an example, PATH will tear down a 65 bed shelter that it owns and rebuild it, half as permanent apartments and half as small units to be operated like a shelter.

Rapidly embracing the latest tool for effective activism, Roberts commented on his blog, “Social media is certainly a strategic approach towards addressing poverty and ending homelessness.”

A rapidly growing number of homeless people have computer skills and social media accounts. Some have their own laptops and smart phones; others can access computers in public libraries.

In addition to the Poverty Insights blog and other online forums, Roberts maintains an active presence on Facebook and Twitter, where impoverished and homeless people congregate online.

Referencing political upheavals generated via social media in countries like Egypt and Africa, Roberts wrote recently “Enough is enough… we don’t see that here in America.” He continued, “We need to stand up against injustices like homelessness. We need to change the system.”

In a blog post written shortly after Egyptians ousted their leader, Roberts wrote “Genuine activism is found when we are using our voice, hearts, minds, and feet, to create actual transformation in our world” and he raised this question: “I wonder if a new generation of Americans will take to the streets to demand justice for Americans struggling with poverty and homelessness?”

Roberts also commented, “Yes …we definitely need to push the cart… and in our country the cart is society’s inability and unwillingness to seriously address poverty and homelessness.”

Joel John Roberts is an extremely charismatic fusion of diametrically opposing characteristics. A highly effective executive who has worked for decades to change the system from within the system, he is also a fearless advocate who is consumed by a “fire in the belly” loathing of social injustice as well as a steely determination to help our nation’s impoverished people. After decades spent calling our attention to social injustice, he is now warning Americans about the potential consequences of a continued failure to act in behalf in our nation’s disenfranchised human beings.

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