Surviving the Streets as a Kid: Joel‘s Story

Ample Labs
Ample Stories: Invisible Homeless
6 min readMay 13, 2019

When Joel was 15, he was living in shelters. He went from Calgary to Edmonton, then Vancouver and finally Toronto. He decided to explore because he had nothing to lose.

Joel remembers his mother telling him he wouldn’t amount to anything. Now, the 26 year old is the founder of Street Voices, a magazine dedicated to amplifying the voices of street youth.

“I think first of all, people are not even aware of the homeless youths’ world. It’s something they don’t even think about — you assume all youth are being taken care of by their parents.”

On a slow day, Joel’s day looks like e-mails.
On a fast day, it’s meeting different people and going to different events. Recently, he spoke at Central Tech, talking to youth about stereotypes. He felt like a high school teacher — he never finished high school but he gained the street smarts and business sense.

“As a street-involved youth, you feel like your voice isn’t prioritized. You’re at the bottom of the society.” — Joel Zola

Joel spent seven years living in shelter systems across Canada. Four years ago he moved to his own place — which was when he founded Street Voices.

“In a shelter system, you’re forced to be social. I did get in trouble, I did get in fights, I did meet people who weren’t the best influence but I also learned all the skills I have today.”

He remembers being in Edmonton, where there was only one shelter. He got kicked out for getting into a fight. He can’t recall the specific reasons — only that being in that world it’s so natural for that to happen. Every shelter has a fight once a week — it’s an environment where people are down and hurting and get defensive very quickly. Because there was only one shelter, there was nowhere else for Joel to go. He slept in the mall, he slept in a bank — it was the lowest point in his life.

“The thing about shelters — you’re dealing with people who have nothing to lose. If you live in a shelter, you technically have nothing. People are bringing a lot of anger.” -Joel Zola

After that, he went to Vancouver where it was better. They had more services and he joined a job employment service called the Kaleidoscope program. They train youth that wanted to work in media. After he graduated, he used the money to travel to Toronto.

In all his time living in shelters, it was the ambitious people that stood out to him. According to Joel, the homeless youth population is people who still haven’t given up on life. It might be harder for adult populations, but homeless youth are no different than youth in a house.

“I met people who were ambitious, who wanted an MBA, who wanted to be musicians, who wanted to be entrepreneurs. All the ambitious people stood out to me, especially the artist which is what inspired Street Voices.” — Joel Zola

The reason Joel was in the cycle for so long was that most of his friends were in the cycle. In Toronto, he joined the Remix Project that offers creative, educational programs for disadvantaged youth. He made friends that weren’t from the homeless world- which gave him extra motivation to get out.

“The quickest way to get out of the shelter system is to make friends that aren’t in the system. My friends had changed and so did my circumstance.” -Joel Zola

He tells me that he doesn’t want to leave anyone out — Street Voices was started by a community. There’s DJ Romeo, who was living in the same shelter as Joel. They came out of the system together. Another is Bryan Brock, one of the founders of 1LoveTO. He was one of Joel’s mentors and showed him how to create a magazine.

“When I started Street Voices, a lot of people thought I was crazy. But if you really believe in your vision, everyone in the room should be able to tell you no and you should still have the confidence to say yes.”

Street Voices is Joel’s chosen family. His mom thought he would grow up to be a drug addict or a criminal. The fact that he didn’t, she’s proud of and he talks to her every now and again, but Street Voices is his true family.

Their events start as magazine launches, which happens three times a year. Every time they have an event, there are performers, singers, dancers, comedians and all art forms. It’s a curated event, but when people come out they want to participate. That’s why they started doing last Thursday open mics with Yonge Street Mission.

“The essence of Street Voices, the mission and vision is this. By ourselves, we’re quiet. As a collective, we have a powerful voice.” — Joel Zola

Joel plans on campaigning with CG, founder of Ample Labs to go to different shelters. He sees the value of a platform that helps homeless youth be aware of services, and wishes he had something like Chalmers so he could figure things out faster. The community Joel has built with Street Voices has relationships that CG can use to help more people.

Although people didn’t take Joel seriously at first, a lot of the haters became his biggest supporters after his vision was executed. Likewise, a lot of people don’t understand that the majority of homeless youth do have phones and have a deep need to find services quickly. Together, they hope to demystify what the lives of street youth are actually like, amplify their voices and cater to their needs.

“One thing for people to know, is this world exists. It’s full of so many personalities and stories. Don’t be surprised if you knew someone that was homeless but you never realized it.” — Joel Zola

This is Joel’s message to those struggling:

“I’d recommend you learn your resources. When you live on the streets- you need to know where you get free services, free meals, free clothing, free program. My advice is to figure out what these resources are and use them.”

For Joel, entrepreneurship isn’t a cape he takes on and off. Even if he was at a party, he would still be talking about Street Voices, Ample Labs and the work that’s being done for homeless youth. Learn more at, and stay in the loop with @StreetVoicesTo and @theJoelZola on Instagram.



Ample Labs
Ample Stories: Invisible Homeless

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