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Home(less) Team

A soccer league made up of homeless people is working unexpected magic

Email icon  yanggoh@gmail.com

Reverend Anthony Adebiyi is tying up the laces of his worn running shoes, mentally preparing himself for the game. It’s just before 11 on Friday night, and his indoor soccer team will take the field any minute. As he walks toward the field, he cracks a wide grin – it’s clear he’s been looking forward to this all week.

Adebiyi, 42, is not your typical athlete; he’s admittedly out of shape, with a bit of a gut. But then, nothing about his team is typical.

Right now, Reverend Adebiyi is homeless. All of his teammates are – or recently were – homeless as well.

Adebiyi’s team is part of a national non-profit organization called Street Soccer USA, which aims to help to help homeless people via soccer.

The concept is simple: by bringing together homeless individuals to play and practice, they’re not only getting much-needed exercise, but are able to work through their issues by supporting one another as a team.

“There’s a lot of solidarity [in soccer],” said Lawrence Cann, the founder and CEO of Street Soccer USA. “It’s really the most egalitarian sport – everyone gets the ball and is treated the same.”

In addition to attending practices and games, players are required to set three, six and 12-month goals, and work with staff and teammates to achieve them. The approach seems to be working: Street Soccer’s latest progress reports indicate a 75% success rate in affecting a positive life change, ranging from addressing a substance abuse issues to finding employment or housing.

“When you play and struggle with people, it’s a very real, shared experience,” Cann said. “[The players gain] a sense of purpose, self-esteem, discipline – these kinds of soft things that really are the first stages of making any practical advances in your life.”

Cann first became involved with homeless services in 2002, when he founded Art Works 945, an art and outreach program in Charlotte, NC. Two years later, he started his first homeless soccer team – Art Works Football Club – that would eventually lead to Street Soccer USA.

“When you start these things – especially from scratch – people are guarded, not trusting,” Cann says. “But all of a sudden you do what you say, tell them what you’ll do with your time, and follow through on your obligations, and the next thing you know, it becomes this community where there’s this really palpable ethos of what it’s all about.”

In 2009, Street Soccer began a partnership with national homeless services provider Help USA, and Cann moved to New York to run the program full-time. The organization now has teams in 20 cities across the United States.

Every July, the teams head to Washington, DC for the USA Cup – a 4-on-4 tournament that decides which city gets to represent the United States at the Homeless World Cup. The 2010 edition is set to take place in Brazil.

Once a week, Cann holds a conference call with representatives from all 20 teams, to keep everyone on the same page by telling stories, discussing problems, and highlighting the efforts of each program.

“The team in Ann Arbor, Michigan does an amazing job, where they scrimmage against the sheriff’s department and the police department,” Cann says. “It’s been amazing because now they have a relationship with the police, so rather than sending them to jail when they pick them up, they refer them to the program.

“Most of our folks, so often they feel they’re the victims of a random imposition of authority,” he says. “No one takes the time to explain to them why they’re getting yelled at or in trouble, or why it has to be this way. Having a personal relationship with a police officer or the referee is really therapeutic.”

In New York, Street Soccer is based at 1 Wards Island, a shelter just off the tip of Manhattan. The players come from all walks of life – and several far as Nigeria, Haiti and Cuba. Will Mazzuto, a former assistant soccer coach at Ramapo College in New Jersey, coaches. Mazzuto, 24, began volunteering at Street Soccer last spring, and said he wound up “getting hooked.”

“What drew me in initially was the players,” he said. “You go out there and see things are hard for them right now – they’re going through something I could never imagine. It’s really just a living hell that they have to wake up every day in a shelter.

“But for that hour and a half, they just put it all aside and just play and have fun and joke around and the things that are bothering them won’t show. It’s really inspiring to see that whatever situation you’re in, there’s always an outlet – and soccer can be that outlet.”

During the winter, Street Soccer NY plays in a co-ed adult league at Chelsea Piers, a massive indoor sports complex in downtown Manhattan. This year, the league – mostly made up of corporate teams from law firms and banks – has been “much more difficult than ever before,” according to Mazzuto, and the team has won only about half their games.

Off the field, however, the team has made some significant strides. Of the 15 players on the squad, 11 have found either part-time or full-time jobs, and seven have moved out of the shelter.

Reverend Adebiyi, for one, is about to start work, after nearly eight months in the shelter. In August 2009, Adebiyi – a pastor with both the Church of God in Christ and Life Changers Church of New York, and the founder of the Chosen Tabernacle Assembly Church – lost both his house and job as a result of the economic downturn, and soon fell into a bout of depression. Playing with Street Soccer, he says, has been essential to getting him back on his feet.

“It lets you interact with people, and just forget about the depression of losing your job, losing your house and all that, and just do something you enjoy for a change,” he said. “You sleep light after the exercise. And when you wake up, you’re ready to go to face another day.”

Among Street Soccer’s 14 volunteers this season is Suzannah Herbert, a senior at New York University. Herbert, a life-long soccer player, was looking for a new team to join when she read about Street Soccer in the paper.

“Playing with the team has definitely cleared up my misconceptions about homelessness,” Herbert says. “A lot of these guys don’t have a family or a support system or any connections because they emigrated here, and in this economy you really need that. Street Soccer gives them a community, which would be absent from their lives otherwise.”

Herbert, who majors in documentary filmmaking, is now making a documentary about Street Soccer, to be called Home Game.

“I hope my documentary will be seen by enough people to kind of change their perception of the problem of homelessness in the United States and in New York City,” she said. “I want this to be an emotionally moving story that will help people see that homelessness is a problem, but it shouldn’t define who someone is.”

Yang-Yi Goh studies journalism at New York University.

Street Soccer USA tries to help to help homeless people by engaging them in soccer. Photo by Annette Crimmins