In Rio de Janeiro, soccer players concluded the Homeless World Cup in late September. Hundreds of homeless men and women from dozens countries participated in this year’s tournament, drawing crowds of thousands. But the event wasn’t just about soccer, it was about changing lives.
Vusumzi Shushu is quick and agile on the soccer field. He has to be. That’s what a life on the streets will teach you.
“I spent eight years on the streets, also done some drugs and I’ve been in prison,” he says. “And I’ve realized in three years that god gave me a gift so why don’t I use that to make a living instead of doing all the crazy things that I do.”
The gift is soccer, and last week it brought hundreds of people just like Vusumzi together for the Homeless World Cup in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The game is fast. Four to a side, and played on a small court. Two 10-minute periods with scores that can reach double digits. Sixty-three teams competing, each representing their home country.
“It’s been wonderful,” said Vusumzi Shushu, from the South African team. “It’s been amazing really in terms of getting to know each other from different countries so we can be one as a nation at the end of the day.”
The bleachers are lined with players from across the globe, speaking in their native tongues, rooting for each other’s teams. Beyond the soccer courts, Copacabana beach rolls into the Atlantic Ocean beneath a hot sun and a blue sky that stayed clear for most of the tournament.
Nineteen-year-old Jasmine Morris from the US women’s team walks off the court after sliding past India 5-3.
“Oh, It’s been great, a lot of competition,” she says, out of breath. “Hard Competition, but it’s been fun.”
Morris only picked up soccer a year ago, she’s now a member of the first U.S. women’s team to play in the Homeless World Cup. But she was homeless in Minneapolis for two years before she got a break.
“I was out of it and my coach helped me get into the transitional living program and it was the best thing that ever happened to me in my life,” says Morris.
“It’s a really important event because it’s changing people’s lives,” says the founder of the 7-year-old tournament, Scottish native Mel Young. “We’re just using football as a common entry and creating a competition around it and it changes lives, that’s why it’s important. I don’t think there should be any homeless people in the world, at all. I don’t think there’s any reason for it, but we have it. Hundreds of millions of people are homeless and so this is kind of a little contribution to try and make a difference.”
According to Young, a surprising 70-80% of participants experience a significant life change after getting involved in the program. They find a home, come off drugs, or even become coaches.
The Homeless World Cup takes place in a different country every year and is the last phase of a much longer program. Participants compete on the local, regional and then national level before a team is chosen to represent each country. To be eligible, players must be at least 16, have been homeless within the last year, be a refugee or be in a drug rehab program.
“In three years I lost everything. I never thought I would fall so low,” says Ricardo Mendes, from the Costa Rican team. After years of alcoholism and drug abuse, he finally got help. Now age 29, he is getting his life in order and he wants to go back to school. “I’m getting back up again and I began with this.”
This was also the first year the Palestinian team participated in the Cup. All of the players are from refugee camps in Lebanon.
“When they invited us they told us that players should be homeless within one year of the event. I told them all of our players are born homeless. They are born in refugee camps,” said Palestine coach Sameh Zeidani.
According to event organizers, with natural disasters, inequality, extreme poverty and lack of affordable health care and housing, roughly a billion people are homeless or without adequate housing worldwide.
The recent financial crisis has also contributed to homelessness, especially in the United States. While numbers are hard to get, The National Coalition for the Homeless says that three and a half million people are homeless each year in the United States. Nearly 800,000 homeless children are enrolled in U.S. public schools.
“Among the other sort of developed countries, we have more of a problem, because a lot of those countries have a system of meeting people’s basic needs when the job market isn’t enough to do that,” says Steve Berg, Vice President of Policy and Programs at the Washington-Based National Alliance to End Homelessness. “I think in most of the sort-of advanced countries there’s more of a social safety net that sort of says we’re just not going to let people be that poor and in this country, we just don’t have that.”
Nevertheless, the Obama administration has been trying. Three months ago, it unveiled the Federal Strategic Plan to End Homelessness in the United States. The first of its kind, the plan proposes to increase affordable housing, economic security, health care and leadership training for the homeless. It plans to eradicate both chronic and veterans homelessness in only five years.
But that will likely take an uphill battle.
“It’s the blinded eye syndrome,” says US player Jasmine Morris sitting on the beach after her game. “Most Americans don’t really care. They’re starting to care, but it’s not enough because people are still sleeping on the street, and you walk by a homeless person just sitting there.”
On Sunday, September 26, last day of the cup, Brazil’s men and women’s teams blew past Chile and Mexico, winning this year’s Cup. The tournament players headed home.
“What are your goals?” I asked Morris before she left. “I want to go to the University of Minnesota, to get a scholarship to play soccer,” she answered.
Michael Fox is a South America-based freelance journalist, radio reporter and documentary filmmaker. He is co-director of the documentary, Beyond Elections: Redefining Democracy in the Americas, and co-editor of the book Venezuela Speaks! Voices from the Grassroots. You can visit his website at www.blendingthelines.com.