Traverse City Record-Eagle


July 10, 2010

Using world's favorite sport to reach out

Groups reach out to homeless using world's favorite sport

ANN ARBOR — On this soccer team, accomplishment isn't measured by goals scored or shots blocked.

It's how many months a player remains sober. Or whether he receives a GED. Or finds a home.

For a team of homeless people, sometimes just showing up is a small victory.

"After so much heartache and chaos and pain, to have so much fun on a soccer field, you don't even know what it means," said David Altherr, 53, who became homeless after seven drunken-driving convictions.

Project Outreach Team, known as PORT, is a Washtenaw County agency that provides services for the homeless. It formed the soccer team in 2007 as a way to reach a population that prefers to be left alone.

Once PORT gains players' trust, it learns what type of therapy and other help they need.

Washtenaw isn't the only place doing it. A growing number of cities around the country have formed a 20-team league that plays a national tournament July 30 in Washington.

An international contest, the Homeless World Cup, is in September in Rio de Janeiro.

Soccer gives the homeless a relaxing way to dip their toe into the mainstream after being away a long time, said Linda Bacigalupi, a PORT jail diversion specialist who is one of the team's coaches.

It also teaches confidence, discipline and other traits that could help one re-enter society, she said.

"They say they feel like this is their family," she said. "That makes it worth it 10 times over."

Altherr concurred.

Fighting both alcoholism and manic depression, he was homeless for six months.

PORT helped him receive counseling and a federally subsidized home. He hasn't had a drink since joining the soccer team six months ago.

He said people who knew him before wouldn't recognize him today.

"I've got my life back," he said. "I'm right where I'm supposed to be. I'm as normal as anybody."

The homeless soccer team began with an argument — over Finland, of all things.

Sara Silvennoinen, a PORT case manager who is Finnish, disagreed with a remark by her boss that homelessness wasn't a problem in that country.

She searched the Internet and found not homeless Finns, but the Homeless World Cup. The international tournament encourages people who want to participate to first improve their lives.

Homelessness and soccer were a perfect fit for Silvennoinen, 30, who works with the displaced every day and has played the sport her entire life.

"This is the one time you can come out and have fun," she said. "Most homeless go into an agency and fill out paperwork. This is, come out and have fun."

Preparing the homeless for soccer matches presents unique challenges. Besides the homeless tournaments, the PORT team also competes in an Ann Arbor city league.

Members of such a transient group suddenly stop showing up for practice. Others come drunk. They accuse each other of stealing their stuff.

During a recent practice at a downtown Ann Arbor park, the ages of the 14 men and one woman ranged from early 20s to late 50s.

Some players were excellent while others kicked the ball into the wrong goal, or tried to kick it and missed.

One player, wearing street clothes on the warm day, was listening to a Tigers game on his radio headphones so intently that he didn't notice the ball trickle right by him during a practice game.

Another player smoked a cigarette on the field. Told to put it out by a teammate, the smoker made an obscene gesture.

But the coaches are encouraging, always encouraging.

"You were making some great saves," Silvennoinen told her goalkeeper after the game.

"What about me?" asked the other goalie.

"You, too, but you're not on my team," she said.

PORT recruits players with a soft sell.

It doesn't tell the homeless they have a chance to travel to the national and international tournaments. It doesn't even tell them that soccer could help them.

Instead, fliers posted at homeless shelters simply say that soccer is a good way to have fun.

And that's what players like best about it.

For the first time in a long time, they're not dealing with mental illness, substance abuse or brushes with the law. For two hours a week, they have no troubles.

"I felt a lot of rejection in my life," said D.J. Williams, 24. "I was, like, super homeless."

He has flitted in and out of homes since his parents kicked him out seven years ago. He has slept in parks, alleys, abandoned buildings and parking structures.

A year after he joined the team in 2008, he began studying for his GED at Washtenaw Community College. He expects to receive it in two months and then work on a college degree.

"I owe them a lot," he said about PORT. "They've taken me places I've never been before."

After the homeless attend a bunch of practices, they eventually feel comfortable enough to discuss their lives. The coaches suggest ways they can get therapy and find a home.

If the players need help securing an ID, birth certificate, a job, the coaches show them how.

The goals being discussed have little to do with a ball in a net.

The soccer helps players become more social and teach things that would help keep a job: persistence, promptness, cooperation, said psychologists.

When Raul Caraba joined the team in 2007, he often hogged the ball. Born in Romania, he has played soccer his whole life.

After much beseeching by coaches, he now routinely passes up shots and gives the ball to players with a fraction of his talent.

He said the team is teaching him how to work with others, both on and off the field.

"I was pretty much trying to do it all on my own," he said about his life.

Caraba, 25, who has struggled to hold onto a job, ran up debts of $7,000. Debt collectors call daily.

He had to sell his computer and television. He was evicted from his apartment. He slept in his car but that, too, was repossessed.

PORT found him a subsidized apartment. It was the first bit of good news he has received in a long time.

"I could get down and depressed and say nothing's working out for me," he said. "This gives me some encouragement."

Caraba has loved soccer since he was a 4-year-old kicking a ball on the dirt streets of Vladimirescu. But it wasn't until he got to Ann Arbor that he realized the sport might just hold his salvation.

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