Searching for home

JoelJoel remembers walking along the deserted city streets one peaceful winter morning two years ago. Snow fell gently as he passed by the darkened storefronts. It was Christmas Day and he was homeless.

Joel was born to a well-off suburban family, but his parents divorced when he was four. His mother moved homes constantly, looking for her own sense of place and purpose. For Joel and his little sister, that meant a series of new schools and neighbourhoods.

Then one day when Joel was in high school, his mother abandoned him and his sister. He was sent to live with his father and his sister went to child protection. Shortly afterwards, their mother came to take his sister back from the authorities and they moved to Alberta together. But she left Joel forever with no explanation.

Life with his father, step-mom and half-brothers seemed alright at first, but Joel felt unwanted and lost, an inconvenient afterthought. He began to experiment with drugs in high school and they quickly started to affect his behaviour. At 17, his father kicked him out.

“I felt anger, sadness, revenge, hopelessness, confusion,” says Joel. “It was like a knot in my gut—a knot that was with me for years.”

Joel’s drug addiction fueled his every decision. He moved from province to province searching for belonging—a rootless wanderer like his mother had been. “There is nothing more exhausting than being an addict on the run,” explains Joel. “You’ve got to find food, got to find dope, got to try to act like a regular person.” Charming and affable, Joel was often able to crash on couches and occasionally work as a bartender, but he spent more than a few nights either in men’s shelters or on the street for over five dark years.

Back in Ontario, a minor assault charge landed Joel in a correctional facility for 40 days. When he was released, Covenant House was suggested to him. Joel was hostile and closed when he arrived. “I had a strong resentment towards the whole human race. I think I was just in a state of shock that my life had gotten this bad,” he recalls.

A month later, Joel had started using drugs again. His lack of control and the prospect of a bleak future terrified him. While he was sitting in a nearby coffee shop, he began to pray, “God, if you are real, I need help.” Joel describes feeling a sense of love, warmth and peace at that moment. He walked back to Covenant House to visit our chapel and he prayed some more. He has not touched drugs or alcohol since.

Joel reached out to the other youth for friendship and support. He speaks with poetic eloquence on their influence. “I felt so blessed to be with the other youth at Covenant House. We all had dysfunctional families. We had all been kicked out. But when we all took off our armour at the end of the day, we were able to be vulnerable with each other. We felt we were all in this together, striving for real, hopeful goals.”

Joel is grateful for the sense of peace that Covenant House gave him by providing for his needs while he focused on his future. He appreciated that our staff members made calls to his worried grandmother and also connected with his father. “They reached out to my family to reassure them and help re-establish bridges, because I lost all credibility with them. Covenant House was able to vouch for me,” he says.

Joel applied as a mature student to the University of Toronto with a heartfelt essay on why he should be accepted in spite of his poor high school grades. He was accepted conditionally on successful completion of a history course. He did so well, he won a partial scholarship and full-time acceptance. He is now majoring in Equity Studies, an interdisciplinary degree with a focus on social justice.

Joel’s dream is to become a criminal defense lawyer to advocate for young people who wish to reintegrate into society. “The young people here gave me a passion for helping people in difficult situations,” he explains brightly. “I want to be a light, a beacon to other youth, so they know that it doesn’t matter how far you slip down—it matters how high you bounce back.”

This Christmas, Joel will spend some time at his father’s home with his younger brothers. For him, it will be a festive time filled with family, good friends, love, faith and a whole lot to celebrate.

9 thoughts on “Searching for home

  1. This story makes me happy. I remember living on the streets of Toronto and I know how rough life can be. I hope Joel continues to pursue his dreams. I am living proof that you can rise above your situation. And that is why I donate money to Covenant House, and donate food to the local food bank.

    • Covenant House Toronto

      Thank you so much for your kind note. We are grateful to donors like you who really understand our kids.

  2. I was impressed by the article on Joel and his real efforts to overcome his substance abuse problem and in particular his long range goal to become a criminal defence lawyer. As a lawyer with many years of practice, if I can be of any assistance to him in reaching this goal , he is welcome to make contact with me. Harold A. MacIsaac.

    • Covenant House Toronto

      Thank you so much for reaching out. We are very impressed with Joel too! Thank you also for your generous offer to assist him. While we are unable to facilitate contact between supporters and alumni, we will pass along your offer to him.

  3. I just wanted to say how wonderful it is when we are able to achieve our goals due to the kindness and encouraging support given by members of community who are able to help out in their own way.
    I am extremely grateful for every single person who has helped me along my journey. Without the assistance and guidance of others, I am certain I would not be alive today.
    I am writing a book based on my life experiences. A few of the subjects that are in my book include growing up in a cult in the 70s, childhood abuse, the disappearance of my mother, kidnapping and escape, living on the streets of Toronto as a teenager,married at 16, pregnant at 18, 2nd marriage at 19, domestic violence, divorce, raising 2 children alone, working and going to school, etc. I have come full circle and continue to improve myself and grow as a person.
    I am currently in the Criminal Psychology and Behaviour Program at Niagara College. I just finished the course Cults & Terrorism, with a final mark of 96. It is my hope and desire to use this in some way to help others.
    I write for the YWCA blog and I have been happily married to my third husband for 10 years.
    I couldn’t have made it on my own without help from places like Covenant House.

    • Covenant House Toronto

      Thanks so much for sharing your difficult but inspiring journey with us. Our kids have also had tremendous challenges, but their resilience is amazing to witness.

  4. It is so heartening to hear these stories of success against such frightful odds. I myself took some terrible roads ending up as a prostitute, professional thief, drug mule and IV drug user. Thank God I had the sight to see straight when I became pregnant and turned my back on these horrors. Its been over 20 years and my son is now a university student and I have been able to fund him through my years of saving. My beautiful daughter is almost finished high school and also has a bright future planned ahead. My career has brought my family overseas and given my children boundless horizons. It was my family and the Elizabeth Fry Society who were my saviors. Never ever ever give up. Always see how far you can go. Accept help when you need it. Give back when you can. Donating to Covenant House is a very rewarding experience. Our youth are our future.

  5. Thank you for sharing these stories which allow us to have a glimpse of the impact that our contributions make. No one knows how God will use the donations and more importantly, the people who serve at Covenant House and it is so heartwarming to know that some are able to find new life through this ministry. Blessings.

  6. This story and many others make me sad that there are still so many youth on the streets. How can parents turn their back on their children. I know some youth can be a handful but I can’t imagine putting them on the street and forgetting about them no matter what. Thank heavens there are organizations like you. That is why I chose Covenant House to give my monthly donation to. Please keep doing what you do. God bless you

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