NEW YORK—A national team of 16 selected soccer players from nationwide Street Soccer teams is headed this Thursday to Brazil for the Homeless World Cup.
New York City Homeless Services commissioner presented jerseys to the team on Thursday in Roosevelt Park, in Manhattan. Later, players from The Red Bulls professional soccer team warmed up with the two street soccer teams, the men's and the women's.
Street Soccer USA is a nonprofit developed inside of Help USA. It's goal is to use soccer to create social change in 19 cities now. Similar organizations around the world are using soccer as a vehicle to help people who are homeless. This year, 64 nations will be represented in the Homeless World cup in Rio, Brazil.
"It provides another vehicle and opportunity to reach out to people who are homeless," said Larry Belinsky, president of Help USA. He explained that by way of finding something they are passionate about, the program motivates the homeless and empowers them to take control of their lives and become more independent.
The program helps the homeless to build back their self-esteem, Belinsky explained. "When people become homeless they become very depressed, they don’t think that they have value anymore," he said.
"Once you start restoring their self-esteem and confidence, that can give them ability to start finishing a GED, finishing education, doing some job training programs, getting a job, feeling even better about yourself."
Changing Their Lives
National Team Player Tokynbo Agiboie from Kentucky trafficked drugs originally. When he came back to the United States in 2004 he got arrested. Finding or maintaining a job ever since, with a criminal record, proved difficult.
When the recession started, he lost the job he had found, and had to leave home and move into a shelter. Agiboie had played soccer since he was a small child, and always carried soccer shoes with him, so the friends in the shelter told him about the Street Soccer team, which he excitingly joined.
"It's a group I'm involved in, and I don’t have to think about my criminal history," he said. "Now I have this sense of belonging, and that all that matters, that you belong to something positive."
Later he was selected for the national Street Soccer team and is now headed to Brazil to participate in the Homeless World Cup.
Besides the mental change, Agiboie's life has also changed. He has even found a job as a waiter, and went back to the home he had to leave.
Player Lisa Wrightsman, 29, was at the bottom 10 months ago. She started abusing drugs when she was in college during parties. Then it went downhill, to the point that it was "not fun anymore.”
She became a drug addict and an alcoholic, and after getting out of jail 10 months ago she started a rehabilitation program, where she also heard about Street Soccer. This was an all-new experience for her. "It's encouraging and inspiring," she said, "A community, people going together for a common solution. And it's fun, it's not just hard work, so it's rewarding."
Filled with new motivation, Wrightsman is now also in an appointment service program run by Volunteers of America, and has an internship. When she returns from Brazil she will most likely have a job, she said.
After being molested at the age of 11, Jasmine Morris ran away from home, not knowing how to deal with life. Now at the age of 19 she's finally buckling down and getting the problems solved, and on Thursday she joined the women's team to represent the United States in the Homeless World Cup.
The soccer team has inspired her a lot. "It's amazing, you have so much support, and I usually don't have this much support from anybody."
"I'm so honored to be able to go," she said. Morris was very excited to go to Brazil, and was looking forward to meeting new people from different countries and teams, and hopefully even come back with the Cup.
Lawrence Cann, founder of Street Soccer USA, really believes in ending homelessness through team sports. "We use the power of soccer to bring people together," he said.
Besides the sports training, Street Soccer USA also offers the players opportunities and resources, offering internships, job opportunities, and counseling.
The program runs in 20 cities reaching about 1,000 people a year, but Cann hopes that in five years it can run in 50 cities and reach 50,000 people a year, making a solid impact.
"Sport takes away all the judgment so we can just see the sport and realize that people are all human beings, they're trying really hard," said Cann.