Matt Stanger caught up with the recently founded Homeless FA to discuss their inspiring work and how football can be used for positive change...
By Matt Stanger
Last Updated: 30/11/12 3:01pm
"These days, people want instant gratification," says Gareth Parker, one of the more positive Arsenal supporters on Twitter, and Head of the Homeless FA. "They go to matches and expect it to be amazing all the time, but it doesn't work like that."
Gareth has a point. The Premier League is driven by success to such an extent that a seven-year spell without a trophy is now seen as a drought. The game at the top level is all about revenue and reward and in a season in which racism allegations, handshakes and supporter unrest have filled the headlines, the circus has left many fans feeling despondent.
There is an inherent good in football though, from the simple satisfaction of booting a ball against a garage door to screaming "Pass it! For the love of Christ, pass it!" at a man you don't know. And it's the rudimentary qualities of the game that the recently founded Homeless FA seek to exploit as they work to help homeless people change their lives.
Football has always been seen as A Good Thing for marginalised members of society who may lack motivation, key social skills and the opportunity to enjoy regular exercise. But although a kick-about can be a lot of fun, the Homeless FA are now focused on harnessing the positive elements of the game and using them to fill the gaps left by unstable upbringings, unfortunate life experiences, and a lack of education.
"We're focused on the long term," says Gareth. "In the homeless sector people have always thought "football's good", but now we're asking "Why is it good, how is it good, and what can we achieve with it?""
Those simple questions have helped the Homeless FA to come a long way in a short space of time.
There has long been a number of excellent football projects for homeless people across England - from those run by professional clubs down to those run by homeless drop-in centres - and these projects now make up the Homeless FA's Community. As the point of the pyramid, the Homeless FA are now able to pass on benefits such as start-up packs, good practice tools, funding resources, and reduced rates on pitches and equipment and other important provisions. They are also seeking to improve the work of these services to provide a long and lasting impact.
"We needed better organisation to bring all the projects together. There are hundreds of projects all over the country, they are our grassroots, the cornerstone of everything we do," says Gareth, and the Homeless FA's mission statement explains the focus on change:
'We use football to give every person experiencing homelessness in England the opportunity to develop their skills and abilities, to gain self-respect and confidence, to improve their health, and ultimately to transform their life. By promoting fair play and inclusiveness in the context of football, our primary focus is on personal and social development.'
Central to these objectives are the Homeless FA Training Centres - a unique programme of activity for homeless people that was piloted in 2012 in partnership with several Premier League clubs, including Arsenal and Manchester United. In a process that begins with a detailed application form - designed to imitate employment applications - both men and women are offered the chance to attend sessions with the clubs' FA licensed coaches over the course of five weeks. Those who take part have the chance to learn more about the game and train in some of the finest facilities in the country, but the experience is not all about playing football.
"Everyone who completes the course achieves a basic FA Leadership qualification," says Gareth. "We give the players an amazing experience, they get to feel like professional footballers for a few days, but we work hard to harness the increased motivation to focus on fitness, personal development, leadership qualities and employability."
It seems the Homeless FA have found the right balance.
"On the first day we all got to go on a VIP tour of the stadium, which was amazing," says Rosie, a 19-year-old who became homeless after her mental health deteriorated so much that she tried to take her life on two occasions, who attended the Arsenal Training Centre. "But it wasn't all just about football, it was about everything else in our lives as well."
The focus between football and personal development is split fifty-fifty, with each day divided between time on the training pitch and time in the classroom. Workshop sessions provide valuable advice on life skills and attendees are monitored and evaluated on their commitment to both sides of the course.
"It was always worthwhile," Rosie explains, as she talks about the benefit of blending her passion for football with learning. "I met loads of new people and every week was different. We learnt about teamwork and relationship building and I gained extra confidence because I didn't feel judged by any of the people there. It was the first time in a long time that I had worn short-sleeved tops and allowed people to see my scars."
Being judged is one of the biggest fears for homeless people, who are often consigned to the fringes of society and made to feel vulnerable by their situation. But one of the main goals of the Homeless FA is to alleviate a person's worries and generate self-belief.
"What we do isn't football for football's sake," says Gareth. "We care more about the production of people."
As part of this aim, the Homeless FA is the national partner for the Homeless World Cup and produces the squads for the annual tournament. Their logo shows a very different three lions, and this is fitting for, rather than trials based solely on football ability - which themselves open up vulnerable people to uneccessary rejection - selection is based on the players' progress throughout the Training Centre programme and the desire they have shown to build a better future for themselves.
"We don't change their lives, they change their lives," says Gareth. "We're the facilitators. We just help them do it for themselves."
The tenth annual Homeless World Cup was held in Mexico City in October and backed by Telmex, the company owned by the richest man in the world, Carlos Slim. This backing enabled the tournament to be the most successful to date with around 200,000 people watching the four-a-side games in the Zócalo, along with many more on the web (games were streamed live for the first time) and on national television in Mexico.
England not only sent a men's team but, owing to the inclusive ideology of the Homeless FA, for the first time in the tournament's history a women's team also participated. These teams joined the other 72 nations that entered the Homeless World Cup and although they were eliminated long before the final stages, winning wasn't the ultimate objective.
"The Homeless World Cup England team is an England team you really can be proud of," says Gareth. "The players were wonderful ambassadors for the Homeless FA, their local support networks and their country. They embraced the experience and quickly realised that it was all about sportsmanship rather than winning.
"As an example, our men were drawn in a game against Germany, a match up that has a certain history on the international stage, but whose national homeless football programme also promote personal development above footballing ability."The German team had been struggling up to that point and had lost their previous matches by an average of around ten goals. They were despondent and many wanted to go home. So we asked our players how they were going to approach the game and they said they would allow Germany more time on the ball to make it a fair match. I was really proud of their response and, rather than humiliating a weaker team, we ended up winning 6-3 and the lads celebrated 'Gangnam style' with the German players before forming a guard of honour for them as they left the pitch. And because of this wonderful act of sportsmanship the Germany team came to loudly support us in all our games from then on."
The experience of the tournament had an enormously positive impact on both England teams and the players benefitted from daily "Believe FC" motivation sessions run by a member of Manchester United's coaching staff that the Homeless FA took to Mexico for this express purpose.
"We did Believe sessions every day and they helped us to lose all negative attitudes and make the most of the week," says Paul, a man who has spent a lot of his adult life in prison. "They also allowed us to look at the next steps we could take, our goals, and what we can do to achieve them." After all of the eight-man squad had spent a day each as captain, it was Paul who was nominated for the role by his teammates on the final day. "It was an absolutely amazing experience and we all got on like a big family. It was really rewarding."
After attending the Homeless FA's Manchester United Training Centre, Paul was invited to Team England day at Manchester United's Carrington facility (St George's Park will play host to such Team England activity next year) before eventually being selected for the Homeless World Cup squad. That he has since moved into his own home and is currently half way through an FA coaching course is testament to both the work of the Homeless FA and his own desire to change his situation.
Rosie has also taken huge strides in improving her circumstances following the help she received from the Homeless FA. "I'm now going to college and I have a lot more confidence," she says. "I still play football twice a week and I'm hoping that I'll soon be able to volunteer at my old secondary school to help run a girls team there."
The Homeless FA is continuing to move forward as well, with research and development of 'Football for Change' - a good practice coaching manual for all those using football to change the lives of homeless people. They will also be running their Training Centre and Team England programme again, working with even more top clubs and taking Team England to the 2013 Homeless World Cup in Poznan.
"Through all of our work we can engage with more people, educate them on how football can be used for positive change and show inspiring examples," says Gareth. "Football can be an incredible, powerful tool, it can change lives for the better, and though we may not always have instant gratification, we know it can have a lasting, often life-saving, impact."