On Thursday nights, the University Presbyterian Church’s multi-purpose room turns into an indoor soccer arena.
The carpeted floors are taped with black lines marking a basketball court. Only the small pop-up goals signal that it’s a soccer pitch. The huge speakers that hang from the ceiling tempt fate as soccer balls fly across the room.
The room tonight is filled with players from Street Soccer USA, a national organization that provides practice time, games, tournaments and camaraderie for homeless participants.
There are currently 16 Street Soccer USA programs located across the country in different cities. Each year Street Soccer USA hosts a national tournament. Cities that have a program can send a team to compete. At the national tournament, players can be recruited for the national team that competes in the Homeless World Cup.
Instead of shelter, hot meals or legal help, Street Soccer aims to tackle homelessness from a different angle: by building community.
UW lecturer Taso Lagos grew up in the University District and continues to work there as a lecturer in the Hellenic studies program at the University of Washington. He has observed the homeless population near his work.
In 2006, Lagos read a book by Mel Young, a Scotsman and journalist with a penchant for social justice who started the first Homeless World Cup. Inspired by how Young used soccer as a catalyst for change, Lagos started a Seattle Street Soccer program.
Lagos reached out to a student who was active in different social justice movements on campus to help launch a Street Soccer program in Seattle.
In the beginning they had difficulty recruiting people, but by 2008 Street Soccer Seattle was going strong. Lagos has since stopped being active with the program due to work and family but still keeps tabs on it.
Street Soccer Seattle’s current program director, Chris Burfeind, found the organization his freshman year at the University of Washington in 2011. Burfeind started coming to practices as a general volunteer. A couple years later he became head coach. Now he oversees the program by helping facilitate the needs of players on and off the field.
Today, Street Soccer Seattle is run entirely by volunteers. They facilitate one weekly practice and game for players. Through fundraising, Street Soccer Seattle is able to provide equipment, uniforms, the cost of playing in a league and the cost of tournaments they go to in addition to the national tournament.
They also provide a community and mentors to support the players off the field in achieving their goals. Their mission is to make it so that the only thing players have to do is show up.
Anywhere from five to 20 players can show up for a Street Soccer practice. One week in October, the four players who showed up were all new to the team. They were joined by teenagers from Casa de los Amigos — a federally funded program under Seattle’s YouthCare, which serves homeless youth — who are undocumented.
Less than ten minutes into the first game, the teens from Casa de los Amigos were giggling and smiling right alongside the Street Soccer players. Their age differences, where they came from and skills didn’t matter. Everyone was there to just play.
Conner Stevens, Burfeind’s close friend who took over coaching duties when Burfeind became program director, designs practices to incorporate drills that work on the Street Soccer skill of the week. Street Soccer skills are soccer skills that players develop in practice and then are used to help them develop life skills off the field.
At the end of one practice, Stevens and Burfeind lead a discussion on what this week’s Street Soccer skill, “taking the space” means. On the field “taking the space” means finding the open space and moving around to get open for your teammate. They then ask the players how “taking the space” might look off the field, in their everyday lives. The players talk about how it might mean going the extra mile at work or accepting a promotion even though it might mean more work. Burfeind also mentions recognizing when you don’t have the space to take. In that case look at other options and communicate with your teammates, the people in your network who can help you, he says.
Before they leave, the players and coaches go around and say one “high” and one “low” of their week. It’s Burfeind’s and Steven’s way of checking in with the players. To celebrate good things and offer support where it’s needed.
While the four new players — Isaiah Jimeno, Sam Casto, Garrett Mallory and Tapha M’baye — are just starting their Street Soccer careers, alumni such as Elena Latham have played for three years and continue to come back to play and also pass on lessons.
Latham has been out for a couple months after injuring her foot. She laments how much she misses coming to practices and games.
These are the days she looks forward to most in her week.
Before Latham fell in love with soccer and began her Street Soccer journey, she was a basketball enthusiast. At least until Burfeind noticed her.
“He said, ‘You look pretty athletic. Have you ever tried soccer?’” Latham recalls. She had never touched a soccer ball in her life. That was near the end of 2014.
Since then she’s been to two national tournaments making her an alum, meaning she can’t go back to national tournaments but can still practice and play games with the team.
“A lot of times when you are homeless you build a community, but that community isn’t always healthy. It can be a community through drugs, it can be a community through alcohol, it could be a community through stealing and that community isn’t really a safe community,” Latham said.
“I could have a bad week, come kick the soccer ball and when my foot hit that ball it was all my anger getting out.”
Street Soccer provides a safe space, a way to meet new friends and something to look forward to every week.
“I could have a bad week, come kick the soccer ball and when my foot hit that ball it was all my anger getting out,” Latham said.
One of the ways Street Soccer supports their players off the field is by pairing up players with volunteer mentors and sometimes alumni of the program.
Mentors help them apply skills they’re learning on the field to achieve their goals off the field.
Latham spent her childhood in and out of foster care. At the age of 14 she got into some trouble and landed in a juvenile detention center.
By the time she got out she was an adult and had nowhere to go but the street.
When Latham met Burfeind she had been homeless off and on for a few years. At the time she was living in transitional housing and wanted to get out and find her own permanent housing.
Each week, Burfeind and her mentor would sit down with Latham to discuss how she could meet her goal.
“We talked about what I needed to specifically do to get into housing. Did I need to save money? Did I need to fill out applications? Did I need to go out house searching?” Latham said.
Latham eventually found permanent housing by entering a lottery for low-income housing in Bellevue.
Her mentor and Burfeind were among the first people she called when she found out.
Latham got to attend her first national tournament — coaches nominate their players after they demonstrate commitment to the program both on and off the field — in San Francisco in the summer of 2015, after joining just at the end of 2014. Latham describes being nervous and overwhelmed by the number of people. But she soon discovered that everyone had similar stories, which made it easy to open up and connect.
The following year, Latham went to her second and last national tournament. Inspired by the speaker from the year before, Latham asked to share her Street Soccer story.
This time at the tournament she wasn’t nervous at all. She was greeted by old friends.
“It’s been really awesome to see players grow within the soccer realm, players with no experience. Then see — after a year of playing with us — see their perception of themselves change."
Street Soccer Seattle’s newest intern and alum, Will Harvey, also looks back on the national tournaments with fondness, describing the experience as something from a story book.
Harvey had been playing soccer since middle school.
But when he fractured his left arm while playing as a goalkeeper in a high school game, he took an indefinite leave from the game. That was until Latham recruited him.
“People don’t applaud homeless people on the street,” Lagos said. However, Lagos explains when they step on the field they become soccer players, and people can start to see them in a different light.
“It’s been really awesome to see players grow within the soccer realm, players with no experience. Then see — after a year of playing with us — see their perception of themselves change, which is really empowering for them not only on the field but off the field,” Burfeind said.
Those involved with Street Soccer Seattle had a hard time putting into words just how much they love the sport.
Harvey recalled playing at Cal Anderson Park recently and the joy that he felt when kicking the ball around.
“I got so excited over the way my foot was touching the ball and the way the ball was coming off my foot,” Harvey said. “I don’t know why, but I love that feeling.”
The fact that soccer requires little equipment or prior knowledge makes it an accessible sport.
These characteristics are also the reason why soccer works so well to accomplish Street Soccer’s mission in building community, according to Burfeind and Lagos. Anyone can play the game.
“Being homeless, you know you don’t … I didn’t have a lot of hope,” Latham said. “Street Soccer is to help us form something in our lives. It’s to give us something to have hope, give us something to do, and build community and friends.”
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