It’s a humid Wednesday night. At the back of a parking lot off of Eastcrest Drive near Central Avenue, music can be heard from the place an apartment complex pool once stood, but has since been filled in with concrete and has become a stadium of sorts.
Neighborhood kids sit on top of a hill overlooking the shiny blue surface of a walled court with a goal at each end.
The game is soccer, although this version is played with three players and a goalie, and has no corner kicks or throw-ins. It’s fast-paced.
John, who moved to the US from South Africa 13 years ago, laces up his shoes, socks and shinguards, all of which will be bloodied by the end of the night, and looks over at a soccer ball, one that has changed his life.
For John and the other eight players at the Street Soccer 945 practice, soccer is more than a game. It’s a release. It’s a way to stay level-headed. It’s a way to be held accountable. It’s a way to get off the street.
Street Soccer 945 is an outreach program of the Urban Ministry Center and is a part of Street Soccer USA, a national organization that uses soccer to support social change and serve the homeless.
Each player on the team is either homeless or has been homeless.
Program director and coach Peter Fink, who took over the program in 2010 after volunteering for a year and a half, says Street Soccer 945 has evolved over the past five years. It’s still goal-driven, whether a player’s goal is to find a job or a place to live, but a large component of the program is to serve the current needs of the players on the team, and at the same time, help them work toward their goals.
“Whether it is income, education, mental health, addiction, building community relationships or housing, we can find out what is needed the most, and work with that player to achieve some output in those categories, as well as their personal goals,” says Fink.
Some of the players are chronically homeless, while others have had a streak of bad luck.
Thomas, the Street Soccer 945 goalie, had been working as a mechanic for years, but after developing arthritis that put him out of work and going through a bad divorce, he found himself on the street, having to stay at a homeless shelter.
Since he started playing soccer, however, Thomas has found a new job, and will soon move into an apartment.
He spends the entire practice shouting over the music blaring from the sidelines, organizing his teammates and getting them the ball as soon as he makes a save. He gets frustrated when he gives up a goal. He gets fired up when his teammates score. He dives all over the hard playing surface, landing on his knees and elbows.
Arthritis matters little when his gloves are on and he has a goal to protect.
After all, Thomas wants to go to San Francisco.
Street Soccer 945 plays in local outdoor and indoor rec leagues throughout the year, and even hosted a tournament at Romare Bearden Park and Ramblewood Park earlier this year, but the ultimate challenge lies in the Street Soccer USA Cup, a national tournament for homeless soccer teams held each summer.
This year’s edition takes place at the San Francisco Civic Center August 14-16. Fink will take six players to represent Charlotte in the hopes of bringing home a trophy, and if any of the players perform well enough, that player could be selected by the US National Team to compete in Amsterdam in this year’s Homeless World Cup.
As Thomas keeps working toward a USA Cup roster spot, the sun sets behind the goal, and more kids from the neighborhood start to show up, knowing that as soon as practice is over, they can take the court. The three teams of four, made up of players and volunteers, have played for 90 minutes.
John is exhausted. He slipped on the surface and cut his knee, and as he cleans it, he tells me that when he was on the streets and looking for a way to keep his head on straight, to find new friends and to stay happy, soccer came calling and woke him up. Today was his first day of work in a while. He landed a job selling vacation packages. I ask him how it went. He grins.
“I made a deal. That’s unheard of for a first day.”
Soccer is the most popular sport in the world. It connects people. And while street soccer is different, it’s hard to imagine a more beautiful version of the beautiful game than this.