Note: I wrote this about three weeks ago, before the Homeless US Cup took place.
Homeless athletes from all over the US will converge on Washington, DC from June 27 though June 29 to participate in the Homeless US Cup soccer tournament. The tournament, which includes about 10 teams and 55 athletes playing short-field street soccer, will determine which players move on the Homeless World Cup this year in Melbourne, Australia.
The US Cup tournament, which is organized by Street Sense, Inc. and the National Alliance to End Homelessness, coincides with the theatrical release of Kicking It, a documentary which follows six homeless men from around the world who played in 2006’s Homeless World Cup in Cape Town, South Africa. The documentary focuses on the players’ backgrounds (including a war refugee, heroin addict, and former foster child) and their newfound desire to change their lives after competing in the world soccer tournament.
Homeless World Cup organizers say, “We use football [soccer] as a trigger to inspire and energize people who are homeless to change their own lives.”
The results are interesting: 73 percent of homeless participants claim that the tournament has changed their life for the better while 92 percent claim to have a new motivation for life.
Besides the motivation of the players to better their lives, the tournament also helps raise awareness of homelessness, and often changes peoples’ negative perceptions of the homeless. Over 64 nations are expected to field teams in this year’s Homeless World Cup in front of more than 100,000 spectators, and after competing in the Homeless US Cup, the players selected for the US national team will play exhibition matches throughout North America.
Organizers of the World Tournament claim: “From 160 spectators surveyed before watching a game at the Copenhagen 2007 Homeless World Cup, 20% admitted a negative perception of homeless people, 21% stated no opinion and 58% claimed a positive view. After watching a game, their views had shifted significantly with 85% claiming a positive perception, 12% had no opinion and only 1% shared a negative view.”
While the players’ stories and new positive attitude are moving, the tournament’s overall impact on homelessness here in the US and globally is questionable. Both the Homeless US Cup and Homeless World Cup focus on the participants’ individual problems over the systemic socioeconomic issues that cause homelessness.
Laura Flanders, host of GRITtv, echoes this thought in her interview with Kicking It director Susan Koch, an Emmy and Peabody award-winning filmmaker. “But they don’t stop being homeless, right? I mean one of the questions running through my mind was, ‘This is all very nice and the get to go to South Africa and compete, but their economic situation hasn’t changed.’ At least we don’t see it change,” says Laura Flanders.
After competing in the Homeless World Cup, for example, only 35 percent of the homeless participants secure employment of some kind, and only 44 percent improve their housing situation.
The problem is that participants only receive a finite amount of assistance while the tournament is active, not the prolonged help many people need to stabilize their life and housing situation. This leads to difficulty fielding full teams in the US, where the priority for many homeless people is finding employment and permanent housing.
“Anthony Lyons, manager of the Gainesville Community Redevelopment Agency, has been trying to start a local homeless soccer program since early fall 2007. However, Lyons is facing a major problem: getting local homeless people to participate,” says the Independent Florida Alligator.
Byron Woods, a Gainesville, Florida homeless man says, “How I look at it, money needs to be spent on more important things, such as adequate shelter.” Woods also says, “It would be hard for the homeless to participate in a team sport while they are struggling to find long–term employment and permanent shelter.”
Despite its inability to address the systemic causes of homelessness, the awareness the Homeless US Cup tournament and the Homeless World Cup tournament bring to homelessness is valuable. The Homeless World Cup has increased its participants and spectators every year, and its impact on the nation’s consciousness can only grow stronger. The Homeless US Cup, while not the sole solution to homelessness, is part of a larger effort to raise awareness of American homelessness and our need to take further action.