Bringing hope to the homeless one soccer ball at a time

By: Megan Lane
Walking into the Routhier Community Centre gym on a Wednesday afternoon in March, you wouldn’t know that the five men playing soccer were homeless. Smiling, they pass the balls between partners or against the wall, waiting for their coach to start practice. Ryan Grenon sits on the bench at the side, discussing the plan for the day’s practice with two other volunteers, then walks to the middle of the gym to get started.

2008 Homeless World Cup in Melbourne, Australia. Photo by Andrew Finegan 2008 Homeless World Cup in Melbourne, Australia. Photo by Andrew Finegan

By: MEGAN LANE

800px-Homeless_World_Cup_2007_Copenhagen_players

Players at the 2007 Homeless World Cup in Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo provided by Benno Hanson.

Walking into the Routhier Community Centre gym on a Wednesday afternoon in March, you wouldn’t know that the five men playing soccer were homeless. Smiling, they pass the balls between partners or against the wall, waiting for their coach to start practice. Ryan Grenon sits on the bench at the side, discussing the plan for the day’s practice with two other volunteers, then walks to the middle of the gym to get started.

It could have been any team in the Ottawa Footy Sevens soccer league, but the Ottawa Street Soccer team is made up of people who have lived or are living on the street or in shelters. Team volunteer Melissa Linkletter says the sport is a means for social change.

“When you play soccer, there is no real divide,” Linkletter says. “I could be playing with people and I wouldn’t even know they were homeless. It takes away the social aspects of life for a while.”

The use of soccer as a rehabilitation tool for people currently on the streets or at risk of homelessness has grown significantly over the past years. Since the first annual Homeless World Cup in 2003, 56 countries have joined the movement, sending players from different street leagues to represent their countries in the international sporting event.

The Homeless World Cup is an annual soccer tournament held in a different country each year. It gives homeless players an opportunity that they would not normally have.

Last year the event was held in Mexico, and in 2013 it will be held in Poland.

Team Canada chooses four western players and four eastern players to make up their team. Often these players do not have the chance to practice with each other until they arrive at the Homeless World Cup.

Research suggests events such as the Homeless World Cup can transform the lives of those participating.

After the 2007 Homeless World Cup in Denmark, 93 per cent of players felt a new motivation for life and 83 per cent had improved their housing situation, according to research done by Stanford University.

“In sports everybody has bad days, everybody loses games, and everybody practises and improves,” says Joel Leviton, manager of Ottawa Rec Sports. “Failure is not only not a big deal, it doesn’t define you and you can always bounce back, get better, and win next time.”

These are potentially life-changing lessons for a group of people that are often misjudged by society.

Virgil Goosehead started playing street soccer in Vancouver before getting the opportunity to play for Team Canada in the 2011 Homeless World Cup, which took place in France.

“The experience was amazing,” Goosehead says. “It was my first time ever leaving Canada and to go to Paris was unbelievable.”

Goosehead says street soccer is a great motivator.

“The change is tremendous,” he says. “Before, I had an anger problem. I got in fights, like real fist-fighting. My coach made me learn that in the game when you get mad, you just use skills to make the other player look silly and it makes you feel better about yourself.”

Since his Homeless World Cup experience, Goosehead says he has a better life, a home and a great relationship with his son.

“Unlike other prescriptive programs like AA, street soccer is about people’s strengths,” says Paul Gregory, founder of Street Soccer Canada. “It allows them to engage in a positive activity where they are not expected to do anything except play soccer.”

The Homeless World Cup was founded by Mel Young of Scotland in 2003. Young is often asked: Why spend money on a sports program rather than a housing program?

“It is not taking money away from programs like shelters. This is new money,” Young says via Skype. “The money comes from sponsors – sporting companies like Nike whose money wouldn’t have been in this sector otherwise.”

Each Homeless World Cup costs approximately $2 million, according to Young. Compared with the costs of other international sporting events, he says the overall costs are quite low.

A homeless person in New York City uses an average of $40,000 a year in public services, according to research done by the University of Pennsylvania. Young says that in the end, the Homeless World Cup actually saves taxpayers money, because 70 per cent of players change their lives significantly after becoming involved.

“It’s not the total solution,” Gregory says. “More housing is absolutely needed. However, I think long-term and affordable housing is needed rather than emergency shelters.”

The Ottawa Street Soccer volunteers work hard to find partners to keep their costs low. The Ottawa Footy Sevens gives them a team space in their league, while, city-councillors and the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board provide gym space for winter practices.

Soccer is considered a summer sport by many players. Ottawa Street Soccer volunteer Shannon Malcolm says summer practices can draw up to 50 players.

“When we play outside in the summer, things are always upbeat and happening,” says Alfred, a player for the Ottawa Street Soccer team. “The games are up-tempo and quite fun. I would like to be able to play as often as possible. In fact, I have near perfect attendance.”

Young estimates that over 100,000 homeless people are involved in these types of soccer programs around the world. Though there is no exact count of how many people play in Canada, Gregory says around 13 Canadian cities have teams or leagues.

“It’s about creating change by engaging the players and getting them off the streets,” Young says.

Former Team Canada coach Alan Bates has seen these success stories personally.

“I see them after they have been playing for a while and they have gotten jobs or found homes,” Bates says. “It is a great thing and as a psychologist by profession, it is amazing to see the benefits.”

Players not only benefit from the experience personally, but often return to support the teams. Young says it is not uncommon to see former players come back to the cup as coaches.

After participating in the 2011 Homeless World Cup, Goosehead and former Team Canada captain Patrick Oleman returned to the Vancouver Street Soccer League to start two new teams of their own.

“I am not going to give it up,” Goosehead says. “I don’t want to stop helping people through street soccer.”

Goosehead says that street soccer is never about winning, but about meeting people and getting involved.

Back at the Routhier Community Centre gym, Earl reminds his Ottawa Street Soccer teammate, “It’s not about scoring goals. It’s about passing the ball.”

After running through a series of stretches and passing drills, the Ottawa Street Soccer team finishes off their practice with a three-on-three game – no goalies. Switching teams halfway through so everyone gets a chance to practise with each other, the game ends as many street sports do: the next goal wins.

As the practice comes to a close, players hang around the gym for another half an hour discussing their lives and their upcoming game on Friday night.

“I hope someone can see that I came from living in a shelter and on the streets,” Goosehead says. “And if I can do it, they need to see that they can do it too.”

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