The spectacle in Times Square on Monday could look like another one of New York’s many flash-mob activities. On first sight, few would guess that it is the national cup for a soccer league of homeless athletes. Each July for the past two years, Street Soccer USA has been holding its final round in a small arena-sized soccer field in the middle of Manhattan.
To enter, the rules are simple: you must be homeless, willing at least to learn how to work with others, and able to show up to practices.
This is how Lawrence Cann founded Street Soccer in 2007; he would visit shelters and youth homes to find anyone who might be willing give the sport a try, and then would pay to enter the team into local adult soccer leagues. Cann and his brother Rob, who began working with Street Soccer shortly after it was founded, both played Division I soccer. Today, Street Soccer has scores of teams in dozens of cities, and runs its own league in San Francisco.
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Typically the players “are without basic soft skills, have suffered trauma, and almost always have problems with anger management,” Cann said last week as he helped drive equipment to set up the field for Street Soccer’s semi-final round.
In soccer, Cann saw an opportunity to encourage homeless men and women, most of whom were between the ages of 18 and 25, to take a risk. He could teach them to show up to regular practices and develop schedules. He could make them feel confident, teach them to deal with outbursts of anger, to help support their friends — to make friends at all.
“It’s about trust,” Cann said “We make them feel comfortable. We get them to trust us, and we use that trust to help them move up.” Soccer gives order to their lives that have none.
Talk to 23-year-old Dennis Diaz, who was once homeless, and the effects of Street Soccer become abundantly clear.
“I had been incarcerated,” he said, “I was in a shelter. I knew I needed to be better.” Diaz, who had started working with the transitional program Ready, Willing & Able, learned about Street Soccer when Cann’s team visited the shelter where he was staying. Diaz said that his initial apprehensions about soccer disappeared after becoming familiar with the sport and the other players.
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“I became more motivated when I played soccer,” he said. “I was proud of myself, so when I became a stronger player, I also became a better person.”
Diaz recently started working as a security guard and is no longer homeless. He plans to return to school and study to become a paramedic.
According to Cann, the players have often been neglected. Many have gone without receiving even the most basic care. At practice, a coach will put the players through difficult triangle passing drills, and then later will ask them about triangles in their own lives: “We connect people to their motivations, we try to understand them and work with them, and as we do that, intractable problems become manageable,” Cann said.
“We also help build their social networks. Many have no friends at first, and then they are able to build relationships, and they always have a team,” Cann said.
“Sometimes your family isn’t there, and you need others to make a new one,” said Brenda Johnson, 22, who joined Street Soccer when she was living in a shelter. “I went to a couple practices and people cared.”
Diaz and Johnson both said that during practices they learned to communicate with each others. Shelter life has an isolating, punitive effect, they said, from which Cann sought to offer a refuge. His players are glad for it.
Last year a former BBC soccer announcer rattled off the names of players as they dribbled the ball between teammates at the National Cup in Times Square. There were no red or yellow cards called, unlike in a typical FIFA match, and players were quick to help an injured opponent, a rarity in professional soccer. Cann said that the competitors were living in shelters or on the street, but each July, they run through one of the world’s most visited places, playing for all of New York City.