Amy K. Nelson takes a close look at Ronnie, Austin, Jerry, and TK, four men trying to turn their lives around ... through soccer. They are all members of Street Soccer USA, a national soccer league comprised of homeless men and women.
NEW YORK -- When Ronnie Love was robbed of everything he owned, he had nowhere to go. He had just traveled on a bus from his home in Tulsa, Okla., with only a few hundred dollars on him and some clothes. He had never been to New York City, and when he stepped off the bus a stranger -- the same person who later robbed him -- guided him to the grimiest hotel he had ever seen. So scared by what he labeled a "crack house," Love didn't even close his eyes the first night at the hotel.
By sunrise, he was out on a job interview, and by the early afternoon when he returned, he was homeless. The man took everything of Love's, forcing him onto the street and into the New York City shelter system. It's been more than a year since Love became homeless, and he still is. What separates Love and some of his friends who also are homeless is that even though they are without a home, they have found one form of stability through soccer. Each week, they practice and come together through a program called Street Soccer USA.
Love, Austin Thornton and Jerry Mansfield all play for New York's street soccer team. And in early August, they all played for New York at the national Street Soccer USA Cup, held in Times Square. The men all live together at a shelter in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn run by the Doe Fund, which is a strict assistance program for the homeless that provides a work program for those who adhere to its focused program. The Doe Fund calls its 400-bed building a facility, but the men call it what they feel it is: a homeless shelter.
"This place is pretty nice," says Thornton, who works in the computer lab. "it's the Hilton of shelters."
It is far safer and nicer than the other shelters in the city, and the men are supported with case managers and structure. They are not in the streets, but they are not on their own, either. Soccer has provided them an outlet.
"I play street soccer," Mansfield says, "because it's a way out."
And that was Lawrence Cann's goal when he founded Street Soccer USA -- to provide home and, hopefully, for as many people as possible, a way out. Cann was never technically homeless, but when he was 9 years old his family's house burned down. He knows what it's like to lose everything. He founded the organization because his aim is to combat homelessness, and he thinks sport -- particularly soccer -- is a path to that end. Cann, who played soccer at Davidson College, has seen his non-profit grow to more than 20 cities, with a U.S. team representing at the homeless soccer World Cup each year.
"We're playing for something bigger than just winning or losing," Cann told his players in the Street Soccer Cup's opening ceremony earlier this month. "We're playing for a better life, and we're playing for our own pride."
Not everyone who participates in street soccer finds a home, a job and a better life. But many do. Love, Thornton and Mansfield are still in the process of getting out on their own. But each week, they know that street soccer is a place they can call home.
Here are their stories:
For more information on the work The Doe Fund does to help the homeless and those formerly incarcerated achieve permanent self-sufficiency, go to its web site doe.org.