Joel Zola, homeless youth turned entrepreneur, on changing Toronto

In this city where many of us work, play and study with little to no thought about the strangers sharing the streets with us when we walk, drive or take public transit to our destinations, there are at least 10,000 homeless youth breathing the same air and looking at the same developing condo buildings.

It is estimated that the mortality rate of these homeless youth is up to 40 times the mortality rate of housed youth, with primary causes of death being suicide and drug overdose.

On a chilly mid-November morning, while making my way to work, I saw a homeless person with his dog sleeping outside of a building. Down the building’s steps and to the right read a sign, “CAN SOMEONE PLEASE WAKE US UP AT 9:30AM? WE HAVE A VERY IMPORTANT APPOINTMENT.” I haven’t seen this homeless person since and I’m starting to regret not ensuring he and his dog were awake at 9:30am.

Sadly, we assume everyone who sleeps on the streets or in shelters are the same. We blame them for being there and often don’t take time to understand their situations and learn about what they’re doing to improve themselves, their community and our city.

I recently spoke with a young man who has been homeless for almost a quarter of his life. He is literally breaking the stigma surrounding at-risk and homeless youth by pursuing his passion and providing resources to other young people with similar circumstances.

Meet Joel Zola:

Joel Zola, founder of Street Voices. Courtesy of: Joel Zola.
Joel Zola, founder of Street Voices, calls himself a, “One man army.” Courtesy of: Joel Zola.

At 15-years-old, Joel Zola was kicked out of his family’s Calgary home. Before he could even get his driver’s license, he had been arrested and had dropped out of school, factors which pushed his step-father and mother to ask him to leave.

Now 21, Joel is making plans to go back home this holiday season to visit his parents and step-siblings for the very first time since he lived under their roof. Traveling all over Canada, moving from Calgary to Edmonton, back to Calgary before trekking to Vancouver and ultimately settling in Toronto, Joel hasn’t seen his family in half a decade.

Upon arrival to Toronto, Joel found himself at Covenant House, Canada’s largest homeless youth agency. From here, the young man was referred to Evergreen Centre for Street Youth at Yonge and Gerrard Sts.

At Evergreen, Joel was introduced to Sketch – an organization in the city entering its 19th year of operation that provides training initiatives for street-involved, homeless and at-risk youth.

By engaging the surrounding community to recognize the severity of homelessness in Toronto, Sketch’s goal is to promote the talents and abilities of the young people who survive homelessness by providing cultural and artistic job projects, public arts exhibitions, performances, seminars and special events.

Joel and Toronto:

When he turned 17, Joel started living at Eva’s Phoenix For Homeless Youth, one of three locations managed by Eva’s Initiatives. Joel has been a resident at Eva’s three times. The award-winning facility in Toronto houses 50 youth, between the ages of 16 and 24, in townhouse style units. The shelter also has partnership-based employment programs to help homeless youth apply and train for jobs that could lead to a long-term career.

After spending months moving from city to city, Joel says he decided on Toronto as a place to settle because of the opportunity it has for people in the creative industry. An aspiring writer and entrepreneur, Joel had dreams of starting his own magazine to give at-risk and homeless youth an outlet for expression that would also work to reduce the negative stigma surrounding youth who live on the street.

“My housing situation for me has always been irrelevant,” says Joel, emphasizing that his home as a shelter never bothered him. “It has always been more about my passion and efforts.”

With combined experience from Eva’s Phoenix and Sketch, Joel launched Street Voices in 2012 – a media platform for street-involved and at-risk youth that produces stories, artwork and initiatives for a print and online magazine and most recently, a video channel called Street Voices TV. Workshops in creative writing and performance are also hosted by Street Voices at Sketch’s Community Art Space, Sketch being Street Voices’ administrative partner.

Joel says he hopes Street Voices will soon also host workshops in videography and other types of multimedia like graphic design and photography, all free of cost. He adds that his organization acts as a means of communication for youth at homeless shelters.

For youth without Internet access, for example, Street Voices acts as a source of information and education to those in need of services, events, networking opportunities and motivating personal stories.

“I’m an artist who wants to get my voice out there,” Joel says. “I realize that because of my circumstance, I have had a lot of obstacles to overcome. I’m not the only one who has that problem. It’s a youth problem. Street Voices is a necessity.”


In 2013, Joel came across a job posting at Sketch for a community artist position. He applied and was soon awarded the position. This one year, paid training program gave Joel the opportunity to train as a project manager while building presentation skills and being paid to work on his own independent project, Street Voices.

On June 11, 2014, the very first issue of Street Voices came out. Over 200 copies were sold, more than 250 copies were distributed to Toronto’s community shelters and resource centres. Out of a total of 500 copies made, only 30 are remaining.

Joel says, “It’s important to have Street Voices widely distributed because it aims to have a world-wide reach. It’s important for the world to know what is going on in Toronto and it gives homeless kids an opportunity. It gives kids hope. It gives them activity.”

The first issue of the magazine shared many stories, one being of a girl who was living on the streets and ended up working for Urbanology Magazine. She now works as an entertainment reporter for The Toronto Sun. Another was of a man who works as a drug dealer. This man moved to Toronto to avoid danger in other major cities as a result of his line of work.

“These stories really represent homeless youth and at-risk youth, “Joel says. “At the same time, there are many stories we haven’t been able to share yet. My goal is to share as many stores as I can to let the world know that we need to hear the power of the marginalized voices of the world.”

The Future of Street Voices:Streetvoices_poster (1)

The second issue of Street Voices is set to launch on December 5, 2014 at Evergreen Centre for Street Youth. Joel will host the event, which will include music, refreshments and performances.

For issue three, readers can expect to see a list of services that highlight the free and accessible resources available for at-risk youth in the city.

Joel says, “A lot of people aren’t aware of these services. If they were, they would use them. Street Voices will raise awareness and save at-risk youth in Toronto.”

You can follow Joel on Twitter at @TheJoelZola and track Street Voices news at @StreetVoicesTO.


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