After 25 years at the helm, Joel Roberts is stepping down as CEO of People Assisting The Homeless (PATH) as of January 2022.
Roberts was motivated to help people find homes and get off the streets due to his personal experiences early in life.
“When I was just a few days old, I was born in Asia, I was actually abandoned by my birth mother,” Roberts. “So for the first couple of years I obviously moved into an orphanage. So, you know, I kind of had, no family, no name. You know really no home. It’s really been kind of the reason why I’ve been trying to help people who are living on the streets.”
Roberts reconnected with his biological family and during the pandemic, he was able to communicate with them. He even eventually visited Hong Kong to see them in person.
“My birth mother has talked with me many times,” he said. “She calls me every week and kind of says, I’m so sorry. I told her ‘look, you were 19 years old and you came from a wealthy family and, you know back then 19-year-old girls in Asia just didn’t have kids out of marriage so I understand. Frankly, you blessed me by giving me a new life here in California so you know it’s just, it all works out for the, for the best.’”
Roberts has overseen a huge increase in PATH’s budget scope of work and the agency now provides services to nearly 20 percent of California’s homeless population in 150 cities.
However, getting to that figure took hard work and persevering through a difficult political climate.
“The biggest challenge is everybody wants to end homelessness, the business community, obviously homeless agencies, neighbors, politicians, even people who are on the streets want to end their homelessness, everybody wants to end homelessness but they just don’t agree on how to do it. And that’s the biggest challenge,” Roberts said.
Roberts said PATH is in the middle of an everlasting debate over what services are appropriate and where homeless individuals should live.
“I feel like if there are not enough services or homes for people, we should not criminalize them. But if we can provide the services in homes, then I don’t think they should be on the streets,” he said. “So, you know, a good example of that is Venice Beach, right, it provided the services and shelter and homes for people, and then they were able to clean up the beach, and I think that’s a good approach, we should be doing that throughout the region.”
Although Roberts is stepping down as CEO of PATH, he will still be heavily involved. He plans to oversee PATH Ventures, the organization’s housing development agency.
“I don’t want to quit or retire from PATH but I wanted to give the leadership over to the next generation. And so that’s what I’m doing. But I’m not quitting or retiring, so I’m going to run PATH Ventures with our partners,” Roberts said. “What we’re finding out is when the housing developers who are building housing for people are homeless, they’re currently spending a lot of money per unit in LA County, it’s like, $550,000 a unit, and it’s too slow. It’s taking years to build these. I want to reposition PATH Ventures to build supportive housing or affordable housing that is faster and cheaper.”
Jennifer Hark Dietz, who currently serves as Deputy CEO will take over for Roberts and she will inherit a responsibility she knows quite well, as she worked closely alongside Roberts for the past eight years. The former deputy CEO accepted the responsibility due to her knowledge of the complex issue on hand.
“I accepted the CEO role at PATH because I truly believe in the organizational mission,” Hark Dietz said. “I am dedicated to our team and the people we serve and believe as a society we have to take a stand and say it is not okay to live and die on the street.”
Hark Dietz wants to keep Robert’s vision alive, but will also carry out her own agenda, which includes focusing on race equality.
“Last year, during the global pandemic we launched our 2021 – 2023 strategic plan: A PATHway to the Future. The key imperatives are equity, advocacy and capacity – these are the areas we have identified to truly move from managing homelessness to ending it,“ she said.
The new CEO says PATH is a partner of the community and only wants to help everyone feel safer and worth something.
“PATH is a partner, we see ourselves as part of the community and we tailor our services to meet the unique needs each community has,” she said. “We will continue to provide services in our local communities, be a resource and build affordable housing.”