You’re not homeless… or are you?

Street Football Wales (SFW) has been taking a team to the Homeless World Cup (HWC) since the inaugural tournament in 2003.

Every year, without fail, there will be questions asked about one or more of our players and their eligibility. The criteria set by the homeless world cup is that players must be homeless or have been homeless in the last 12 months (24 months if also in drug / alcohol rehabilitation) or make their living as a street paper vendor.

At SFW we have a lot of teams in our league programmes made up of players currently living in hostels or people sleeping rough and accessing homelessness services. We also have a lot of players living in temporary supported housing or refuge; sofa surfing; sleeping on floors in other people’s houses and living in unsafe accommodation.

All of these situations mean that people are eligible to play for a HWC team. Because all of these situations are classed as homelessness.

If you are reading this knowing that you have somewhere to live where you are free from fear, with privacy when needed and are not at imminent risk of having to leave, then you have at least two crucial basic human needs met – those of shelter and safety.

For too many people, these are basic needs that they are still aiming for, yet which they often minimise or overlook, because they aren’t actually ‘on the streets’.

The HWC is coming to Cardiff in July this year and the tournament shines a light on homelessness, presenting people experiencing homelessness to the world as footballers – providing respite from the label of ‘homeless person’. And with this comes a much-needed reality check for the wider community and (hopefully) a reduction in the stigma and negative judgement around homelessness.

As a key partner, SFW is keen not only to share in the positive messages around how we can address homelessness locally, but also to raise awareness of the spectrum of homelessness that exists. To do this, we will (as we always do) select teams representative of this entire spectrum – Our Dragons and Warriors will be people currently or recently sleeping rough; living in hostels or hospitals; care leavers living in temporary supported housing; those who are sofa surfing and/or living in unsafe accommodation.

We really want to get the message out there that homelessness takes many forms and that no matter what ‘type’ of homelessness someone is faced with,  their experiences and the challenges that go with it are valid.

There are a lot of ‘hidden homeless’ people in education, in work, volunteering and even playing sport professionally, with no one around them aware of what they’re going through. Too afraid or embarrassed to ask for help, a lot of ‘hidden homeless’ people won’t even consider themselves to be in need, because they have a roof over their head where they sleep at night.

It’s complicated.

I’ve linked a couple of articles below which highlight some of the less ‘typical’ experiences of homelessness, as well as the kind of experience that we might feel more familiar or comfortable acknowledging. It’s incredibly brave to open up and share such a vulnerable experience with the world and I have a lot of respect for people who have shared their experience to raise awareness and/or potentially help others going through something similar.*

Here’s hoping that the HWC coming to Cardiff will help shed light on the scale of the problem that exists, that we can influence policy in Wales, and that people experiencing all forms of homelessness feel less alone and more able to access support to address their situation.

c4 Final Whistle 04

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/apr/07/sabrina-cohen-hatton-firefighter-fire-safety-heat-of-the-moment

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/dec/20/working-homeless-britain-economy-minimum-wage-zero-hours

https://www.theguardian.com/football/2014/nov/17/fara-williams-football-homeless

https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/homeless-mans-heartbreaking-message-tory-15739289

 

*I also have a lot of respect for those who choose not to share their experiences – it’s just that I’m talking here about those who have.

Street Football Wales – what do we do?

Because we don’t provide hostel accommodation or housing.

We don’t deliver planned support.

We don’t provide drug or alcohol rehab.

We don’t provide outreach to rough sleepers.

So, what’s the point of us?

Before I explain, let me just say this – since 2003 when SFW was born, it’s been a project that’s almost impossible to describe. Unless you’ve been involved or come and seen the project in action, you’re likely to be a bit confused. Sceptical even.

SFW exists to help tackle social exclusion. It’s not a project for a particular age group, gender or ethnicity. It’s not aimed at a specific ‘client group’ such as offenders, people experiencing mental ill health, homeless people or those who are economically inactive.

SFW is for everyone who’s experience of living day to day involves feelings of being socially excluded – whatever that may mean to each person. Yes, of course, being socially excluded probably means experiencing some of these ‘labels’. And yes, because SFW was born from having been at the first ever Homeless World Cup, homelessness is one of the more prevalent experiences of people involved.

But this doesn’t mean that we pretend to exist to solve any of the challenges people face, and we don’t pretend to exist in order to save anyone from their problems or experiences.

We exist to accommodate a little bit of escape from the crap, in an environment where it doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, what you’re going through or even whether you’ve kicked a ball before. You won’t be asked about your ‘needs’ and there won’t be a sniff of a star chart, assessment form or support plan anywhere!

At a match day, training course or other activity, you will be treated first and foremost as…. drumroll…. PEOPLE! Hopefully you’ll get to know each other, and we will get to know you and then as a community of SFW staff, volunteers, players and visiting organisations we will support, encourage and lift each other. We can provide some opportunities that might have a positive impact on the course of your life, or which might just help kill time.

Some people will participate with SFW for a season at most – come to league match day’s and that’s the extent of it. Others will be around for maybe a couple of years. Start with playing at match days, dip a toe in some of the training offered and perhaps get selected to play at a tournament or two.

Then there are the ‘veterans’ of SFW – people for whom the project becomes a part of their lives throughout their personal journey. The long-term volunteers, players whose road to recovery is lengthy (with a few detours en route!), people who are in employment and who use annual leave to attend match days.

 

At SFW we don’t mollycoddle. Make your mistakes, take the consequences and grow from the experience. We don’t make excuses for aggressive, discriminatory or disrespectful behaviour – although we often understand where this comes from and will listen to what people need or want in order to change, we don’t patronise or pretend to have all the answers.

What we DO is believe in you. That you can change (if you want to); that you can  play football; that you can control your anger; you can lay off the drink or drugs; you  can join a mainstream sports team; you can learn and get qualifications; you can  volunteer or work; you have got skills; you have got potential; you are interesting; there is hope!

We understand the domino effect of developing self-esteem… physical activity, training, volunteering and being part of something are all things that are recognised as having a positive impact.

But there are also other things – being listened to, being believed in and having the courage to try things. Being allowed to learn from mistakes, feeling welcome and respected, building friendships and being able to help other people – these all give us feelings of self-worth. As a project we are always learning and improving from our own mistakes and feedback too.

 

SFW is also the organisation that selects players to represent Wales at the annual Homeless World Cup tournament, Again, this is something that can be hard to understand without having experienced it in some way.

Playing for your country at any level in any sport is a huge achievement and a real honour. There’s something extra in doing so whilst dealing with homelessness and any or all of the associated challenges.

We know, having seen first-hand over 16 years, that being a Welsh Dragon or a Welsh Warrior (the names given to the male and female international teams respectively) is life changing. It doesn’t always mean coming home from a tournament and life being all sunshine and rainbows and often people will return to their lives making no real immediate changes at all, but even then it will have been worth it.

How? Because in the build-up, during training and at the tournament itself, players will have been seen as footballers. Not people with ‘issues’, not ‘clients’. Just footballers. They will have broken out of their comfort zone and succeeded in facing some seemingly impossible physical and mental challenges, and somewhere along the way, those experiences, the resilience and strength needed to face them, will be called upon again.

And you know, even if the ‘only’ outcomes of being a Dragon or Warrior are the memories made, that’s ok. Some people have no significant positive memories and having a hand in changing that is enough.

So, going back to the question of what SFW does? Hopefully we provide opportunities to get involved in things that people wouldn’t otherwise be doing. And from there? Well, maybe we will be a part of some people’s journey to recovery from mental illness or addiction. Maybe accessing an advice surgery from one of the visiting organisations will be the start of a positive change. Maybe the peer support from other participants will have an impact…?

SFW is one potential stop on some people’s journey through life. We have a map that we can look at together, but ultimately, we all follow our own path – and as long as you know that our ‘stop’ will always be there, that you can stay as long as you like and you can always pop back, it’s job done.