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Street Soccer continues the fight against homelessness

"Sport and goodwill can be used to tackle some of the most difficult problems in society." -- Homeless World Cup founder Mel Young

Roughly 400 homeless people visit Charlotte's Urban Ministry Center each day. While waiting for lunch, laundry or a shower, they often run into Ray (last name withheld), the center's 41-year-old jack-of-all-trades. If the refrigerator breaks, Ray fixes it. If the art studio needs new wiring so the artists can listen to music, Ray sets it up. He's an accomplished Urban Ministry artist himself, having sold more than $3,000 worth of paintings through the center's art shows.

Ray moved to Charlotte more than a decade ago and began sleeping in a graveyard less than a mile from the center. He dug up a plot, creating a bed of dirt between the ground and the casket. He chose that spot because he assumed most bullies' fear of ghosts or superstition would override their attempts to rob or beat him.

Now, Ray lives with his second wife (his first wife passed away from multiple sclerosis) and their five children in a two-bedroom apartment. He has 15 children altogether, but the older ones have long since left. Last month, the family was almost evicted. Ray used to sell "fish," aka drugs, out of the back of his house, accepting food stamps as payment before he and his fellow sellers were busted.

Ray has served several stints in jail and once knocked in a man's jaw after the man chased him with a butcher knife. He now steers clear of alcohol and drugs. Ray laughs often and wears a bandanna with a baseball cap over his head. He cared for both his mother and father before each died of cancer, the latter fighting a bone cancer that Ray says "tore all his insides out" before he passed away.

However, Ray says the biggest change in his life thus far has been soccer; specifically, the homeless Street Soccer USA program started at the Urban Ministry Center in 2004. "The soccer, Urban Ministry, all of that kept me from going back to prison," Ray says. "If I didn't have [that], I'd be in prison for my natural life. Or dead. My children wouldn't be born. Because before I started soccer, I was running people over with cars, shooting people in the leg. I did not, I repeat, I did not care. Soccer changed all of that."

Fighting homelessness

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, researchers in 2007 estimated that as many as 3.5 million people experience homelessness in a given year (1 percent of the entire U.S. population or 10 percent of its poor). That total likely has increased in the wake of last year's economic crisis. Currently, close to 900,000 people are estimated to be homeless at any given moment. The estimates reflect people in a multi-month, and monthly year struggle with homelessness and debilitating poverty.

When Lawrence Cann began working at Charlotte's Urban Ministry after graduating from nearby Davidson College in 2000, he'd read about the annual Homeless World Cup. Cann played collegiate soccer at Davidson and thought that the Cup program's goal, to support social change through sport, matched what the center was trying to achieve. "If people are forming cliques on the street for protection and secrecy, it's great to bring them together for something positive instead," Cann says.

Along with center worker Jessica Woody, Cann approached homeless center visitors and asked them whether they'd be interested in forming a soccer team. That recruitment practice continues today.

"It's literally walking up into the bunk rooms in shelters in New York City or the kitchen in Charlotte and saying, 'We've got practice, try it out,'" Cann says. "They'll say, 'Soccer? What the heck is that about?' and you ask them to trust you. Not everyone wants to try. But we are social beings, and it's rare that these folks have a chance to plug into something. As a result, they often they want to be a part."

Homelessness can foster feelings of isolation and defensiveness, which the programs are designed to combat. Each player sets three-, six- and 12-month goals for himself that he establishes with his coach, an initiative that mirrors a social worker-client atmosphere without the pressures of a formal setting or official titles. Some players hope to obtain housing or a copy of their birth certificate; others want to work toward their GED. Many wish to stop dealing or abusing drugs and alcohol. If they break a rule or don't work toward their goals, they're benched. At a recent practice, one Charlotte team member wasn't allowed to play because she'd punched a teammate earlier in the week.

Ebony Wright joined the Street Soccer 945 team in Charlotte (named for Urban Ministry's address at 945 N. College St.) a little more than a year ago. She'd heard about the team and wanted to lose weight, perhaps go on one of the trips to the Street Soccer USA Cup in D.C. She was homeless, had no job and had a self-professed bad attitude.

"Before, I was just sitting around like f--- it," Wright says. "Pardon my language, but I just didn't care. But I finally got sick and tired of being sick and tired, so I did something about it."

Growing up in Durham, N.C., Wright had never tried soccer. "I sucked when I started," Wright says. "I wanted to give up but Coach Rob [Rob Cann, the national program coordinator, one of the Charlotte coaches and Lawrence's younger brother] was like, 'No, come on, stay with it, you'll get the hang of it.' So I stayed, kept getting a little frustrated, but kept trying. And look at me now."

Wright, who turned 22 this month, was the only female chosen for this year's World Cup team, which traveled to Milan in September. The roster was composed of players selected from homeless squads around the country based on their skills and merit. The U.S. finished 19th of 48 teams (Ukraine won the tournament), a vast improvement over the first year when it finished last. Wright is now working as a custodian in a church and will soon have housing. Her next goal is to obtain her GED and work with computers, perhaps earn a computer technology degree.

Rob Cann moved to Charlotte in 2005 to work at Urban Ministry and coach alongside his brother. When Lawrence moved to New York City to work with Help USA in launching a nationwide SSUSA headquarters in 2008, Rob took over the Charlotte program.

"I can't force anyone to play soccer, and I can't force anyone to follow through with their goals," Rob says. "But if the players set goals on their own terms and we're just there to say, 'Hey, this is what you told me you want out of life, how can we do this together?' then they feel like they have ownership."

What began in Charlotte as one team of 14 players five years ago has grown to more than 18 teams in 16 cities nationwide. Lawrence soon will travel to more U.S. cities to work with volunteers and shelter staff on new teams. There are no age limits on the squads, but the general concentration is between the ages of 20-30. A typical program will have 30-50 team members a year.

SSUSA is principally sponsored and funded by Ted Leonsis and the Leonsis Foundation in addition to the donations from sponsors and volunteers. (Leonsis is a longtime AOL executive and owner of the NHL's Washington Capitals.) Help USA is the national homeless service provider that has enabled Street Soccer USA to expand by incubating the program. The U.S. Soccer Foundation also helped SSUSA build its field and helped host the first two national cups.

Changing lives

Street soccer competition differs from traditional soccer in that the field is much smaller, resembling the size of a tennis court. In official street soccer games, a team typically fields a goalie and three other players. However, when the teams compete in local competitions, they'll either field a full soccer roster of 11 or play seven-on-seven matches.

Tim Cummins was one of 945 SSUSA's first goalies. He moved to Charlotte from Indiana as a drug addict, living on park benches. He was in and out of rehab centers for the better part of six years before finally committing to quit. Oct. 17 marked his three-year anniversary of being clean.

Cummins lettered in seven sports as a high school athlete but says soccer always has been his favorite. One afternoon last year, he had a scheduled Narcotics Anonymous meeting at Urban Ministry and saw a few guys playing soccer on the center's makeshift field. He began kicking around with them and missed his meeting. Now 41, Cummins lives with his girlfriend and her three children, all of whom he encourages to play sports. "I'm hoping sports keeps them off the streets," Cummins says.

He traveled to Melbourne, Australia, as part of the U.S. World Cup team in 2008. "That was when I first learned that everybody is not homeless because of the same situation," Cummins says. "I met a homeless girl from the Philippines who was 16 years old. She'd worked in a sweatshop since she was 8, seven days a week from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. That trip changed my whole perspective."

Cummins says this season may be his last as a player. He met with Lawrence and several U.S. representatives at the USA Cup this past summer to discuss the possibility of using SSUSA's grant funding to attend referee school. He hopes to referee at the 2010 Homeless World Cup in Brazil.

Making a difference

It's clear that SSUSA is making inroads: 210 people who have been Street Soccer USA team members are now in housing. The organization is implementating more formal monitoring and evaluations in partnership with some universities so it can isolate the direct effects athletics and its progam model have lead to in housing.

"Our numbers are higher when you look at a significant life change," said Kann. "[This] includes other steps forward other than housing: drug treatment, mental heath treatment, enrolling in classes, maintaining at least part-time work for more than 3 months.

"That percentage is has ranged each year between 70-77 percent overall with a several programs in 90 percent range."

Anna K. Clemmons is a writer for ESPN The Magazine.


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