In 1989, Joe Roberts was addicted to heroin, living under a bridge in Vancouver.
“In less than 12 years I went from a kid pushing a shopping cart on Vancouver’s downtown east side, to being on the cover of Canadian Business and MacLean’s magazine as a celebrated entrepreneur,” he said.
Roberts is former CEO of Mindware Design Communications and now works as a motivational speaker, telling his story to businesses and organizations across North America.
On Wednesday, he was the keynote speaker at The Push For Change at Blue Mountain Resort, a two-day symposium on mental health organized by the Ontario Provincial Police.
Roberts was born in Midland and lived in Barrie before moving to Vancouver at age 16. It was in Vancouver, where developed addiction and spent time in jail and ended up homeless.
He said he grew up in your average middle class family.
“There is no indications in the first eight years of our lives that I would end up on the street,” he said.
However, his father died when he was eight years old and his mother re-married shortly thereafter.
He said this led to emotional abuse and physical abuse in the home, which was the trigger for his addiction. He said he tried drugs when he was nine-years-old.
It was in 1989, after selling his boots for a fix, that he decided to make some changes in his life.
“In 1989, I was not the jokester, I didn’t have a life that was filled with laughter and fun,” he said. “I was the quintessential addict living in the downtown east side, collecting cans and bottles.”
He received support from the Salvation Army in Vancouver, his mother and addiction counselors.
Roberts received two diplomas and went on to a successful business career, making his first million dollars when he was 35.
“Getting from there to here, took a lot of help,” he said.
“I’m here because of more than 10,000 people who invested in me. Who invested not in my probability, but my possibility.”
Roberts said homelessness is a problem that needs support and collaboration. He said more money needs to be invested in prevention and support.
“How we invest, right now in North America and most of the developed world, we invest in emergency response,” he said. “If you had a pipe broken in your house, would you spend all day, all night continuing to mop up the water without stopping the leak? The system for me for exiting homelessness, worked.”
Also speaking was former NHLer and best-selling author Sheldon Kennedy. Kennedy, who played eight seasons in the NHL, has been advocating for abused children after announcing he had been sexually assaulted by his former hockey coach.
Kennedy is a director of the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre Calgary. The centre includes representatives from the Alberta Health Services, prosecutors’ office, justice ministry, police and RCMP under one roof.
Kennedy believes collaboration is important in dealing with mental health issues.
“My message is connecting the dots for the impact of early childhood trauma,” he said. “Our systems are set up to deal with the outer layer of the onion all the time.”
Kennedy said more than 90 per cent of mental health issues come from trauma. He said it’s imperative the police have the knowledge of how to deal with these issues.
“We can’t operate in our silos and not communicate with each other,” he said.
“If we see somebody who is down and out on the street, how do we shift the question from what’s wrong with you to what happened to you?”
Kennedy said there needs to be more stories about recovery and people overcoming these challenges.
“We don’t hear enough good stories about recovery and hope,” he said. “One of our messages is, there is a way out, because I was one of them.”
OPP Commissioner Vince Hawkes said the symposium is part of the mental health strategy the OPP introduced a year ago.
“How do we train our officers to be in a better position to deal with the community?” he said. “We have to make sure our members understand the challenges of mental health.”
In 2010, Aaron Firman, who was suffering from mental health issues, was killed after an officer used a taser.
Hawkes said it’s incidents like this that led to the development of the strategy.
“It certainly is,” he said. “The driver of it is, we as police officers have to be in a better position to deal with those individuals in crisis. The whole understanding of what the individual is going through and how you deal with it.”
He said the organization is making changes to it’s policies and investment in its officers. He said they are looking at best practices of how to people in crisis.
Hawkes said one model includes having a mental health worker and police officer going to the same call.
“We’ve enhanced our training in the last two years, to build in the de-escalation piece in a higher level than we ever had before,” he said. “We don’t want to be in a position when we take individuals and arrest them and put them in jail when really they are sick and they need to go see a doctor. We have to invest to in our people training and other technology.”
Hawkes has been in policing for 32 years, and said the way they deal with mental health crisis has to change.
“All you saw was the threat, you didn’t understand why,” he said.
“There was individual who was doing something unusual and was a potential threat to someone in the community or a police officer and we just dealt with it, with sheer physical force. Now, it’s all about understanding what those challenges are and how do we deal with them appropriately?”