A Home field for the Home­less

Street Soc­cer Philadel­phia pro­vides a com­mu­nity that turns their lives around


Af­ter fish­ing cleats from an old gym bag and com­plet­ing a quick stretch, the play­ers formed a cir­cle in a cor­ner of the soc­cer field. One of the team’s coaches spoke first.

“We have some new faces to­day. I’d like every­body to go around and just say their name. I’m Walker.”

One by one, the rest stepped for­ward. I’m Mark. I’m Tom. Ray wore jean shorts and an old Ea­gles jer­sey, the stitch­ing al­most com­pletely un­done. And Dre had a “215” tat­too on his neck — the city’s area code.

The play­ers all had at least three things in com­mon. They had never touched a soc­cer ball un­til rel­a­tively re­cently. They were all tee­ter­ing on the same jagged edge: hunt­ing for a job, des­per­ate for a home, try­ing to piece their lives back to­gether, fight­ing daily for sur­vival. And they were in it to­gether, re­ly­ing on an in­valu­able and un­likely com­mu­nity amid a world that oth­er­wise could feel cal­lous, iso­lat­ing and un­sup­port­ive.

“The theme for to­day is build your tri­an­gle,” the fresh-faced coach, Walker Stole, told the group. “What does build your tri­an­gle mean?”

Have sup­port, one player sug­gested. Unity, an­other said.

The play­ers’ days of­ten were spent scav­eng­ing — for food, for work, for sta­bil­ity— but un­der an over­cast sky on one cor­ner of the Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia cam­pus, the evening prac­tice strips away la­bels, trou­bles and judg­ments. Street Soc­cer Philadel­phia is one of a hand­ful of pro­grams na­tion­ally that aims to

in­tro­duce the beau­ti­ful game to the os­tra­cized and oft-forgotten home­less pop­u­la­tion.

Founded in 2007, Street Soc­cer USA says its goal is more sup­port than pure sport. Soc­cer is a ve­hi­cle through which coaches and or­ga­niz­ers dis­cuss life skills, goal set­ting, re­la­tion­ships and team build­ing.

There are lay­ers to ev­ery mes­sage, and th­ese ses­sions are akin to mo­ti­va­tional seminars. Each prac­tice is built around a theme: show­ing up, whether it’s for your team­mates or for a job in­ter­view; set­ting goals; mak­ing a game plan; play­ing with heart. So when Stole talks about build­ing a tri­an­gle, he’s talk­ing about more than an of­fen­sive attack.

“On the field, you build tri­an­gles as we move down the field,” he tells the play­ers. “We al­ways need to have sup­port. . . . The same thing in life. So off the field when we’re go­ing through life, it helps to have at least two peo­ple we can turn to at all times. You never know: One of your good friends could be in trou­ble, and you need to have an­other per­son to turn to. And that’s how we get through life. That’s how we get down the field and score goals.”

A field and a net

Thomas Daniels had had a long day. The shel­ter he called home had set him up with work clean­ing the streets and parks in a nearby neigh­bor­hood, for which he earns $8 an hour and sat­is­fies terms of his living ar­range­ment. That evening’s soc­cer prac­tice had been the car­rot dan­gling on a stick through­out his day. Daniels, 34, had never even kicked a ball un­til a few weeks ear­lier, and since then, he had found him­self think­ing about the game at all hours.

“There’s some­thing dif­fer­ent about it,” he says. “Makes me feel like a kid again.”

Be­fore prac­tice he at­tended a manda­tory house meet­ing at Ready, Will­ing & Able, the tran­si­tional shel­ter that tries to help Philadel­phia’s home­less men get back on their feet. There was a long list of dis­cus­sion top­ics at the weekly ses­sion, agenda items big and small: lights out in the rec room, a leak in the sec­ond floor and a faulty air con­di­tion­ing unit.

When two rep­re­sen­ta­tives from a lo­cal credit union be­gan dis­cussing a fi­nan­cial man­age­ment class, a hand went up. “Hy­po­thet­i­cally, if a mem­ber pre­vi­ously com­mit­ted a type of fraud with your estab­lish­ment, what type of penal­ties would they in­cur?” one res­i­dent said with a straight face.

Daniels, home­less for two years and a soc­cer player for barely three weeks, sat at the front of the room and be­gan fill­ing out his ap­pli­ca­tion im­me­di­ately fol­low­ing the meet­ing. He asked whether the credit union could help with a car and was told the in­sti­tu­tion has a work­ing re­la­tion­ship with En­ter­prise Rent-A-Cars.

“I don’t want a car from En­ter­prise,” he said. “They fired me.”

Daniels was born in south Philly and spent most of his adult life do­ing odd jobs and strug­gling to make ends meet. He spent a year locked up — pro­ba­tion vi­o­la­tion re­lated to a drug pos­ses­sion case— and had no place to go af­ter his fa­ther died and no one would take him in. Sta­bil­ity and any­thing re­sem­bling a sup­port net­work had been elu­sive.

He first wan­dered onto the soc­cer field, mostly out of cu­rios­ity, and found him­self im­me­di­ately lost in the ac­tiv­ity. For a cou­ple of hours, he had no wor­ries, dan­gers, pres­sures — just a ball and some en­cour­ag­ing friends.

“Out in the streets, I didn’t have that,” he says. “I couldn’t turn to no­body or talk to some­body for help or any­thing like that.”

The team is filled with sim­i­lar sto­ries. Many of Philadel­phia’s home­less cit­i­zens have limited school­ing; they have bat­tled ad­dic­tions, spent time be­hind bars, strug­gled with men­tal ill­ness. One of the Street Soc­cer’s re­cent play­ers had schizophre­nia di­ag­nosed and said the only time he wasn’t over­come by voices was when he stepped on the soc­cer field.

Among the coun­try’s 10 largest cities, Philadel­phia is be­set by the high­est poverty rate, around 26.5 per­cent ac­cord­ing to city statis­tics. Around 12,000 peo­ple ac­cess Philadel­phia’s shel­ters each year, and at any given point, city of­fi­cials es­ti­mate that more than 600 peo­ple might be living on the streets, in al­ley­ways, un­der over­passes.

For now, Daniels re­turns each night to the shel­ter just south of down­town, mak­ing his way up­stairs to a dor­mi­tory-style room with eight beds and few per­sonal pos­ses­sions. With a daily rou­tine, steady work and weekly prac­tice, his life feels tem­po­rar­ily sta­ble, and soc­cer has be­come a source of pride.

At the re­cent prac­tice, play­ers were shout­ing en­cour­age­ments dur­ing a four-on-four scrim­mage, and Stole barked in­struc­tion from the side­line. “Where’s the tri­an­gle?” he yelled. “Yes! Per­fect, Tom.”

A cou­ple of min­utes later, Daniels took a pass and whipped it past a de­fender through a pair of cones. He spun around and sprinted to­ward his team­mates.

“I did it again!” he said, bounc­ing and hug­ging si­mul­ta­ne­ously. “I did it again!”

Stole ap­proached him later. “Looked like you were hav­ing fun out there,” he said. “Yeah, man. Tired.” “Well, you’ve scored ev­ery time you’ve come out.” “Three goals,” Daniels said. “So far.” “Three? Well, keep ’em com­ing.”

‘What’s my com­mu­nity?’

Mark Walker is dif­fi­cult to miss at prac­tice. He’s all over the field, his hair flop­ping and lips flap­ping, He is 29, skin coated in ink, tat­toos that rep­re­sent a mis­spent youth: “Life’s a gam­ble” is writ­ten on his arm. “Live to­day, die to­mor­row,” reads an­other. “Only tha strong” is scrawled across his throat.

“Only the strong sur­vive no mat­ter where you at,” Walker ex­plained, his limp braids fram­ing a weath­ered face that be­trays his young age. “You gotta be su­per strong, es­pe­cially in my sit­u­a­tion.”

He has been home­less for three years now, but like most, he con­sid­ers it a tem­po­rary sit­u­a­tion. Ja­son Miller is a so­cial worker and the ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of Ready, Will­ing & Able. He ex­plains that men are in a state of cri­sis when they land on the streets. They have nowhere else to turn, of­ten hav­ing ex­hausted all re­sources and sev­ered all re­la­tion­ships. They’re alone.

“Th­ese guys have to de­velop two things,” Miller says. “They have to de­velop a com­mu­nity. Many of them are strug­gling with drug and al­co­hol is­sues or they’re com­ing out of pri­son. They’ve burned ev­ery bridge in their life. This is an op­por­tu­nity for them to fig­ure out, what’s my com­mu­nity?”

Many are in a state of tran­si­tion, but the prob­lems and so­lu­tions aren’t as sim­ple as fill­ing out job ap­pli­ca­tions. Walker has made strides but also suf­fered set­backs. He has bounced be­tween shel­ters and was booted from Ready, Will­ing & Able last year af­ter vi­o­lat­ing the shel­ter’s zero-tol­er­ance al­co­hol pol­icy. He said soc­cer keeps him from giv­ing up en­tirely.

Home­less or­ga­ni­za­tions, such as Street Soc­cer, try to tar­get un­der­ly­ing is­sues. Be­fore a re­cent prac­tice, for ex­am­ple, Chan­drima Chat­ter­jee, co-founder of Street Soc­cer Philadel­phia, sat with Walker in a cor­ner of a shel­ter, work­ing on math prob­lems. Walker never made it past the ninth grade, but he now at­tends classes two days a week, hop­ing to earn his GED by the end of sum­mer and then find a job that will get him off the streets.

He cred­its soc­cer for fi­nally giv­ing him di­rec­tion. He no longer feels aim­less, is no

longer dogged by the idea he’s not good enough. For many on the streets, when the deck feels stacked, the slight­est set­back can seem in­sur­mount­able.

“They start to in­ter­nal­ize be­liefs of ‘I can’t,’ ” says Steve Smith, a co-head coach and a psy­chol­o­gist at Penn. “‘I can’t do cer­tain things.’ I think this is re­ally a good ex­pe­ri­ence for them to ac­tu­ally see it, feel it — feel what it’s like to learn a skill, feel what it’s like to jug­gle a ball for the first time. We use that to build con­fi­dence, tap into other goals and undo those neg­a­tive be­liefs they’ve ob­tained over the years.”

The Philadel­phia pro­gram is built off a na­tional model. Street Soc­cer USA says it reaches more than 2,000 par­tic­i­pants an­nu­ally across 16 cities, and those teams com­pete a few times a year in places such as Times Square in New York or the Civic Cen­ter in San Fran­cisco. An all-star team of sorts will head to Am­s­ter­dam later this sum­mer for the Home­less World Cup, a tour­na­ment fea­tur­ing squads from all over the globe. Walker is hop­ing he will be se­lected to rep­re­sent the United States.

In his sec­ond year with the Philly team, Walker is the most re­li­able player, show­ing up even when tem­per­a­tures hover around 30 de­grees — some­times when it’s just him, a coach and a ball. When he re­turned from a tour­na­ment in San Fran­cisco last year, for weeks he proudly wore his par­tic­i­pa­tion medal around Philly’s streets and still can be found most days sport­ing his team T-shirt.

“Soc­cer, to me right now,” he says, “is ev­ery­thing.”

The team’s re­cent prac­tice ended af­ter the sun had set. Walker and his team­mates again gath­ered in a cir­cle. Un­der the haze of the city lights, the down­town build­ings in the dis­tance ap­peared to loom es­pe­cially large, the cracks be­tween them de­cep­tively nar­row.

“I want you guys to think about what your tri­an­gle looks like off the field,” Stole, the co-head coach, told the group, ham­mer­ing home the day’s theme. “Who are those peo­ple that you can de­pend on, who you can turn to for help?”

The play­ers dis­cussed their tri­an­gles — fam­ily mem­bers, friends, God and, of course, their team­mates. As the play­ers re­turned their bor­rowed cleats and staved off re­turn­ing to their re­al­ity away from the pitch, a bulky fig­ure came walk­ing up the dark side­walk be­hind the field. Der­rek Wal­lace is a ghost, a for­mer team­mate who once lost ev­ery­thing and now cred­its Street Soc­cer with help­ing him rebuild his life from scratch.

‘Some­thing to look for­ward to’

Wal­lace hasn’t been able to prac­tice with the team this spring. He has a new job flip­ping piz­zas and doesn’t usu­ally get off un­til 8 p.m. But he still comes around to chat with his for­mer team­mates, to en­cour­age them and make sure they know home­less­ness doesn’t have to be per­ma­nent.

Street Soc­cer or­ga­niz­ers hope for heavy turnover: They want their play­ers to find homes and live in­de­pen­dently. The Philadel­phia pro­gram is four years old, and Chat­ter­jee re­ports that more than 75 per­cent of the play­ers have con­nected with jobs, ed­u­ca­tion and hous­ing within two years.

Wal­lace, 45, has a weightlifter’s body and of­ten wears a ban­dana that cov­ers his corn rows. He can be an im­pos­ing pres­ence, at least un­til he starts talk­ing. He’s af­fa­ble and shows no out­ward shame about his strug­gles. He re­mem­bers the low point all too well, in fact.

Three years ago, Wal­lace, a girl­friend and their new­born baby were shar­ing a room in a friend’s home. They couldn’t make rent, and the girl­friend left one night. The next day Wal­lace and his son had to leave, too. He wres­tled with his op­tions and re­al­ized he had none. They went to the city’s depart­ment of hu­man ser­vices, and Wal­lace handed over his son.

He then checked into a home­less shel­ter and be­gan plot­ting ways to rebuild his life. He spot­ted a Street Soc­cer flyer on the shel­ter wall not long af­ter. Like most of the play­ers, Wal­lace is a Philadel­phia na­tive who grew up in a rough cor­ner of a rough city and never had oc­ca­sion to kick a soc­cer ball. But at that first prac­tice, he sud­denly had a sense of con­trol over some­thing, even if it was just a ball.

“It taught me more about what it means to work as a team,” he says, “and to stick with them through the good times and the bad times. . . . It’s helped me to change my life.”

Street Soc­cer isn’t limited to the pitch. Coaches and or­ga­niz­ers get to­gether away from the field for team-build­ing ac­tiv­i­ties, group ther­apy ses­sions, pri­vate chats. They lis­tened to Wal­lace talk about his son and helped him de­velop a plan to get him back.

Not long af­ter join­ing the team, Wal­lace en­rolled in a culi­nary arts pro­gram. With help, he filled out hous­ing pa­per­work, job ap­pli­ca­tions and worked with a court to dis­cuss his cus­tody op­tions. He was the heart of the soc­cer team for two years, and though he was never the most skilled, Wal­lace had a high mo­tor and played re­lent­less de­fense. He trav­eled with the team in 2013 and ’14 and found soc­cer to be the sta­bi­liz­ing force he had lacked.

“No­body wanted to care; no­body was re­ally help­ing that we could see,” Wal­lace said. “But when we came to prac­tice, it was like we had some­thing to look for­ward to.”

Six months ago, he was hired by Rosa’s Fresh Pizza. He also landed a sub­si­dized two-bed­room apart­ment in the city’s Wal­nut Hill neigh­bor­hood. And most im­por­tantly, he is mak­ing progress on re­gain­ing cus­tody of his 3-year-old son, also named Der­rek.

“He has so much en­ergy,” Wal­lace says with a smile. “He’s just like me.”

His son lives with a foster fam­ily, but Wal­lace has him on week­ends. He picks up his son from school on Fri­days, and they usu­ally walk the six blocks to Wal­lace’s sparsely dec­o­rated apart­ment. With dona­tions, Wal­lace has two beds, a TV and a dresser in one room. A neat row of quar­ters, stacked four high, sits on the dresser: bus money.

The other room has a bro­ken fu­ton frame and a pair of dressers, and in the living room is a book­case and two kitchen chairs. A set of six plas­tic Christ­mas-themed tum­blers sat one re­cent af­ter­noon in the kitchen sink.

Among his most prized pos­ses­sions is a soc­cer ball given to him by Street Soc­cer coaches. Wal­lace likes to kick it back and forth with lit­tle Der­rek. The game — and all that it of­fers — is some­thing Wal­lace never had grow­ing up, and it’s some­thing he’s ea­ger to share with his son.

Top: The Street Soc­cer Philadel­phia pro­gram prac­tices at a field on the Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia cam­pus. Above: MarkWalker has been home­less for three years, but he cred­its the pro­gram with giv­ing him di­rec­tion.


Top: Dre Green, right, con­grat­u­lates Thomas Daniels af­ter Daniels scores a goal dur­ing prac­tice. Daniels has been home­less for two years and had never touched a soc­cer ball un­til re­cently. Still, prac­tice is what he looks for­ward to most each day. Above: Daniels walks with Street Soc­cer Philadel­phia co-coach Steve Smith be­fore prac­tice. Daniels is among the ap­prox­i­mately 12,000 peo­ple in the city who live in shel­ters, and he earns $8 an hour clean­ing streets and parks.


Top: Street Soc­cer helped Der­rekWal­lace find a job at a pizza place and a sub­si­dized two-bed­room apart­ment as he works to re­gain cus­tody of his son. He is among the 75 per­cent of play­ers in the or­ga­ni­za­tion who have found em­ploy­ment. Above: Thomas Daniels rests on his bunk in his room at Ready, Will­ing & Able, a tran­si­tional shel­ter that tries to help Philadel­phia’s home­less men get back on their feet. His job and soc­cer have given him more of a daily rou­tine of late.

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