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.