St. Louis homeless get team of their own

St. Louis Post-Dispatch | July, 26, 2009 | B1

If you’d taken a stroll past Soulard Park on a recent Friday evening, you’d probably have seen what looked at first glance like little more than a friendly pick-up soccer game.

A bunch of men playing four per side on a short field, laughing, sweating and jawing the way guys do when it’s just the guys.

But there’s one crucial detail that makes this weekly event far more meaningful than your average park scrimmage: These men, organized and coached by volunteers, don’t play for a work or school team.

They play on this team because they’re homeless.

This is the St. Louis Roadies, a team that will compete in Washington at the end of the month in the Street Soccer USA Cup, a tournament for homeless clubs. Leading them is Keith Deisner, soccer fanatic and the development director for Peter and Paul Community Services, which runs a homeless shelter and service program. He has help from a group of volunteer coaches – most of them friends from high school who just love soccer.

When the weather is good, they practice at the farmers market park. In the rain or cold, they caravan over to the old National Guard Armory near Highway 40 or to the Kingdom House gym.

Each week, they work on dribbling, guarding, passing and shooting. They run drills around little orange cones, take turns at penalty kicks, learn juke moves and the like.

And of course, they scrimmage. Sometimes it’s homed versus homeless, sometimes they split.

As many as 15 players have attended practices in the past year, though many come and go. There was the Kenyan immigrant who was phenomenal with a soccer ball but disappeared after a few weeks. And another regular fell away from the team after spending time in jail.

Five regulars are scheduled to go to Washington this week for the tourney, which runs Friday through Sunday, with their expenses covered by donors.

Most of the homeless players say they first came out to play on a lark. The idea seemed odd, but with a little cajoling from Deisner – who recruits all over town – an evening in the park sounded like a nice alternative to hoofing it on the street corner.

Doug Carter, 39, had played as a kid, then lost track of the game, switching to football in high school. He has been homeless on and off for five years, bouncing from job to job and apartment to apartment. He said he got cut from his last gig washing dishes because business was slow.

Carter’s days are filled with trips to temp agencies. He gets food stamps and relies on local service agencies for other needs such as toiletries, laundry and clothes. He sleeps in an abandoned train depot with other homeless people. He was part of the inaugural St. Louis team last year and went to Washington for the Roadies’ first appearance in the national street soccer tournament. Carter is the captain of the team now; for the past year, the game has been one of his life’s biggest constants.

“This gave me a lot of encouragement, that extra motivation, going out and playing, to work towards a goal. Sometimes you don’t get work and everything, you get frustrated, you get mad,” Carter said, breathing hard and chugging Powerade. “This helps me keep going.”

For Daniel Blue, 25, a returning player who just graduated from college and is looking for work and a place to live, the team “gave me something stable to do. Even when I still had problems, it gave me an outlet and let me know that I could be all right.”

That was the idea in 2004, when Lawrence Cann started building what would eventually become the Street Soccer USA Cup. Cann, a soccer fan, had volunteered at a homeless center in North Carolina and also read about homeless soccer competitions abroad.

He took his first homeless team overseas in 2005 to compete in the Homeless World Cup, an international tournament for homeless players, and returned with the goal of building a U.S. tournament to act as a qualifier.

“A lot of homeless folks are living from moment to moment,” Cann said. “The structure of a constant practice and to know that there’s something that is going on in six months that I’m a part of, that’s very settling.”

The tournament is four-on-four soccer on a short, hard court that resembles the streets. Last year, 11 squads from around the country played in the open tournament. This year, at least 16 are expected. From those teams, Cann will put together a national team to take to the world cup in September.

The whole exercise is full of contrasts. The Roadies coaches are average guys – a computer programmer, an IT guy, a plumber, a teacher, among others. The players live on the margins – several sleep in abandoned buildings north of downtown, one just moved out of a shelter, one had so little he practiced barefoot.

But the field is also a great equalizer, Deisner said. There, you’re not your home or lack thereof, you’re not your job or lack thereof, you’re just a member of the team. For the Roadies, the weekly practices are an hour and 45 minutes where everyone sweats the same.

“It’s all the best of what organized sports can offer,” Deisner said. “Here for a couple hours they get to be outside the homeless population and with a group of guys who treat them as equals.”

The camaraderie among coaches and players shows running up and down the field. They encourage each other, cheering when someone scores, pushing when someone gets winded. And they get in plenty of verbal taunts, the kind reminiscent of a high school locker room.

Joe Campanella, a coach who works for a pipeline company, is the most mouthy on the team, and makes more than a few jokes about missed shots, bad passes, girlfriends, whatever. But as much as Campanella dishes out, the players give back.

At a recent practice, Labon Smith, 36, who has been homeless for three years, reveled in the chance to heckle the coaches, literally barking when he bolted past a defender. Afterward, Carter suggested it would be unwise “to let Campanella run wild in the nation’s capital” during the tournament.

Campanella flashes a big grin through it all.

“I think (the teasing) makes them feel like everybody’s on the same level, because we are,” he said. “Everybody’s got their own demons, and some of us are dealing with it in other ways.”

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