Exercise, friendship, and a bit of fame
"It takes your mind off your worries," says a player during a break in a soccer game at World Wide Sports Center. Raul, a soft-spoken twenty-four-year-old, plays regularly with the SSPORT team. It's made up of men and women of various ages and skill levels whose bond is that that they are, or were recently, homeless.
SSPORT stands for Street Soccer Project Outreach Team. It was organized a year and a half ago by PORT, a city-county service whose workers provide assistance including clothes, shoes, and even tents to homeless people who shun the shelter (or are not allowed in because they drink). Coached by PORT counselor and lifelong player Sandra Silvennoinen, the team plays at West Park in the summer and at Wide World Sports in the cold months. WWS donates the field time, but finances are so tight that last winter the team played in their boots; after a fund-raising game by the Detroit Ignition pro team, PORT now is able to provide players with gym shoes, shorts, and shin guards.
Half a dozen to fifteen players show up each week. Some run and kick with vigor; others move much more slowly, like a middle-aged woman in slacks who's never played the game before. No one pays much attention to the scoreboard, but Silvennoinen says the games have had a powerful impact nonetheless. "One guy we were trying to engage with for years," she says. "We saw him at a park and said, 'Hey, come on, play.'" The man is now getting substance abuse treatment. "It's hard to play and use," Silvennoinen says.
Ann Arbor sent a team to the Homeless USA soccer competition in D.C. last year, placing fourth. Silvennoinen reports proudly that six out of seven players who competed have since moved into stable housing.
[Originally published in February, 2009.]