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Homeless holiday

Charity | Is a $20,000 soccer trip really the best way to help the homeless?

Issue: "Supreme Court fight," July 23, 2005

On the sidelines of a soggy soccer field in Charlotte, N.C., Stephanie Johnson sips Gatorade and hollers to her teammates: "All right now . . . Ya'll bring it home." The 45-year-old Maryland native never imagined she'd find herself playing defense on an amateur soccer team, primarily for one reason: Ms. Johnson is homeless.

But homelessness has not kept Ms. Johnson from playing soccer on one of two homeless teams in the United States, and it won't keep her and her teammates from taking an all-expense-paid trip to Edinburgh, Scotland, this month for the third annual Homeless World Cup. Homeless teams from 32 countries are scheduled to compete at Edinburgh's famous Princess Street Gardens July 20-24 in an event that will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Homeless World Cup began three years ago as an initiative of the International Network of Street Papers (INSP), a Scotland-based organization for homeless people who sell newspapers about homelessness. Competition organizers say that playing soccer on a team is good for the homeless because it teaches responsibility and social skills while boosting self-esteem.

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An INSP study of 204 Homeless World Cup players conducted four months after the 2004 games reported that 38 percent of the players had found regular employment, some 46 percent had "improved their housing situation," and 27 percent had "addressed their drug dependency." Organizers admit that it is impossible to determine how much of the players' improvements stem directly from playing soccer, but they claim a close connection.

Though registration is free, each team is responsible for raising funds to cover travel expenses. For the U.S. team, that means a hefty $20,000 for its nine players.

Jessica Woody and Lawrence Cann are the organizers and coaches of Art Works Football Club (AWFC), the Charlotte team chosen to represent the United States in the games this year. AWFC operates under the umbrella of Urban Ministry, a local community center for the homeless.

Ms. Woody says some 130 homeless people have participated in open practices and games since the team began last June. AWFC has no requirements except that a player shows up for a practice in order to play in a game. Substance abuse does not preclude a player from the team, but Mr. Cann says teammates "can't be high while playing."

Mr. Cann says AWFC raised $20,000 for the Scotland trip through individual donors and corporate sponsors, including Bank of America, which donated a $10,000 challenge grant. He says the funds will cover everything from passports to visas to mailing fees to plane tickets.

Mr. Cann dismisses criticism that $20,000 is too much money or could be better spent, saying it's worth the cost: "We're doing a lot of good for the city by getting its name out there and showing people that we are for progressive things." He also dismisses criticism that the program distracts people from finding jobs and housing. "This is job training," he says. "They're learning social skills that they need to get and keep a job." Ms. Woody adds that Urban Ministry offers social services such as job placement, housing options, and recovery programs for players who seek them.

Across town, the Charlotte Rescue Mission offers a free, Christian-based, residential recovery program for homeless men and women with drug and alcohol addictions. At least four men or women could complete the 90-day program for the cost of the AWFC 11-day trip to Scotland, according to E.J. Underwood, the mission's director of development. Executive Director Tony Marciano adds that dealing with the heart is vital to truly helping the homeless and addicts. "If you don't deal with the addiction itself, you're really doing the person a disservice," he says.

AWFC player Ms. Johnson says she's not an addict, but that she struggles with keeping a job and staying off the streets. She says playing on the soccer team has given her something to do. "I got kind of bored just sitting around," she said.

After a practice game against a league team of young professionals at a local recreation center, Ms. Johnson and her teammates board a bus to go "home." For two players, home means a friend's house, for one player it means a shelter, and for at least four players it means the woods.

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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