As temperatures dip below freezing, every day can be a struggle to find food, shelter, and warm clothing for Ottawa’s homeless. But next week, they’ll be getting a chance to forget about those challenges for a while and focus on something unexpected: a game of soccer.
“I played soccer for two years and then I never played again,” said Shawn Bates, a young Ottawa homeless man. “It’s fun, I like the energy and it’s something to do.”
University of Ottawa graduate student Tatiana Rother is starting up a soccer league for people throughout the city who are living on the streets.
“I’ve always been very passionate about issues with homelessness,” says Rother. “This is a way for homeless people to be engaged in something that’s fun and motivating.”
Rother, 24, heard about the Homeless World Cup held in 2010 in Brazil and started looking around at home. That’s when she found Street Soccer Canada, an organization that runs leagues for the homeless across Canada.
Ottawa, however, is one of the few big Canadian cities that doesn’t have a team.
“I actually got to see the Toronto team play, and so this summer I decided to try to start a league in Ottawa,” says Rother.
She says in the beginning it will start as an indoor pick-up league. Men and women can show up and be divided into two teams for a scrimmage in a local gymnasium.
She’s hoping eventually they will have enough players to create a league of at least three teams – and even a core group of people to make up a competitive team that will play against other cities.
One of Street Soccer Canada’s most successful teams in Vancouver was chosen to represent Canada at the Homeless World Cup in Brazil. Tatiana says she would love to be able to compete for a chance to represent Canada, but that the league’s success will be measured beyond the pitch.
“Statistics from the world cup show that people have a new motivation for life, they improve their social relations, sometimes it even leads to them improving their housing situations,” says Rother.
It’s been found that over 70 per cent of players improve their lives after playing and that even the public changes its negative preconceptions after learning about soccer for the homeless.
Starting the league, however, was not easy.
Rother worked all summer to get enough sponsors, players, volunteers and a place to play.
One of her biggest sponsors supplying jerseys, shorts, pinnies, and soccer balls is the Ottawa South United soccer club.
Rother secured more sponsorships, including one from former Rideau-Vanier city councillor Georges Bédard. finally the Routhier Community Centre for the space to play. The final step was getting enough volunteers to help out with the organization of the league, as well as providing extra bodies for games.
“Soccer is a highly non-elitist sport that anyone can play, so every time I go to a shelter I talk about the league,” says Danny Jones, a health promoter for the Canadian Mental Health Association, as well as a former player with Canada’s national under-17 team.
Jones is one of the volunteers working with Rother to help promote the league as well as helping coach the players. He has seen first hand in Kenya how soccer – even when played with a flip-flop for a ball – can bring people together.