by Richard Brook

While playing football for your country might ever be spoken of as life changing experience, there can be few people for whom it is so literally the case as the players for England’s Homeless FA. To get to that point of being at the World Cup, requires that they will have made significant personal strides during their involvement with the Homeless FA. These achievements are reached through that great common denominator that connects so many people from all walks of life: Football.

If there is anyone reading this who does not know, and who has not already guessed, the Homeless FA is England’s national homeless football charity who utilise that commonality that so many people fall back on in countless situations, provided by football, to improve the lives of homeless people in England. The organisation offers the opportunity to every homeless person in the country to hone their footballing skills and in doing so to improve their outlook in ways that transfer to other situations.

The Association aim is that as the players skills improve so do their self respect and confidence, through the sense of achievement, and of course there are the more obvious health benefits of regular exercise through participation in a sport. The Homeless FA runs training events and is ultimately one of 73 national partner’s for the Homeless World Cup, responsible for selecting and managing the England team for the annual competition. All people experiencing homelessness in England are eligible for consideration, and players are prioritised based on self-development, which in turn hopefully improves the wider perception of homeless people in England.

Having existed for just one year the Homeless FA have produced a report into their first 12 months of operation. Amongst the achievements of their inaugural year the organisation lists the appointment of Fara Williams, a midfielder for England, Team GB and Liverpool Ladies, who reportedly has her own experiences of homelessness, as one of their patrons.

The report speaks of the difficulty, as a new project, for the organisation meeting the expectation that from a sporting standpoint is the objective of the organisation, safe and enjoyable participation in the Homeless World Cup in Mexico, balanced with the wider objectives of the Association, to improve the the lives of homeless people in England.

Throughout the report it is clear that, while the Homeless FA is entirely inclusive and open to all people in England who are experiencing homelessness, the emphasis is strongly on the individual helping themselves. It seems that the organisation regard themselves as a supportive environment for a homeless person to change his or her self-perceptions, and football is the accessible common denominator facilitating the change. The Association’s vision begins; “Every homeless person has the potential to change their lives positively”, and this theme continues throughout. The programme appears as an opportunity to make a change, not a promise that someone will make a change on anyone else’s behalf.

The organisation recognises the benefits attainable are also a two way process in that the sporting world can be encouraged to see the role it can play in supporting vulnerable people in wider society. Indeed further than this; that portions of wider society might form a fairer perception of what it is to be homeless. Given that the Association is supportive of research into the effectiveness of homeless football initiatives, and is in a position of influence amongst policy makers, is in a position to facilitate positive engagement between interested parties and the Homeless FA’s players.

Such research has identified football as the preferred sport for achieving the organisation’s worthy objectives. The sport is uniquely accessible due to minimal resources being required, and its wide popularity throughout the country and indeed globally. It is also a beneficial sport in terms of its nature as a team sport and the health benefits associated with exercise. There is also no comparable sport in terms of the opportunity for partnership and involvement with the community wing of professional clubs. The report points to an ever increasing body of evidence that involvement in meaningful activity such as that offered by the Homeless FA contributes towards players’ feeling of self worth, motivation and identity through the development of new skills and widening their network of friends and contacts. All of this in turn may contribute towards the avoidance of some of the negative behaviours that are sometimes associated with homelessness, such as alcoholism and drug misuse.

The training centres in 2012 were delivered in partnership with four Premier League clubs, Arsenal, Everton, Manchester United and West Brom. Part of the reasoning behind these clubs being selected was to link the Homeless FA brand with aspirational brand that is the Premier League, to assist in the organisation’s function of helping to increase their players’ feeling of self worth. Places at training centres were available by open application, assessment of the players desire to change their lives and references. The scheme is open to all people experiencing homelessness in the country, and the organisation were keen that the lives of all attendees of training centres should have their lives positively impacted upon, rather than merely focussing on those players selected for the World Cup. The feedback and observation of the programme seems to indicate that it was successful in proving a positive experience for all involved.

29 men and 22 women made it through to Team England day at Old Trafford, celebrating their achievements so far with a ground tour, and a four-a-side match at Carrington training ground amongst the highlights. Additionally the Homeless FA celebrated its partnership with the FA in an event at Wembley Stadium that saw the launch of Team England’s kit to be worn at the 2012 World Cup.

In October, a 16 person squad was sent for each the men’s team and the women’s side to compete in the World Cup in Mexico, while they were there the support of the Homeless FA continued through their Believe FC (standing for ‘future confidence’, rather than football club) scheme with modules such as self-belief and motivation. Team England’s staff for the World Cup was made up of representatives of Manchester United, homelessness services, England Women’s team and people with experience of homelessness to provide as broad a base of support as possible for the players’ needs.

The Homeless FA is an ambitious and dynamic organisation and has plans for growth in 2013 that reflect this. Moving forward the Homeless FA want to build upon the Homeless FA Community, that is to say to work with regionally focussed homeless football organisations to build links and common practices. The organisation also has plans to expand its own Team England training centres from six to 18 in the coming year, as well as continuing with their research objectives.

Given that the objective of the project is the improved perception, held by the outside world, of English homeless people and an improved sense of self worth amongst the players, it is by these standards alone that it can be judged. The comments of such individuals contained in the report speak for themselves.

During the World Cup respected referee Hary Milas, took Team England Women to one side and described refereeing teams like them as “an honour”. Milas continued “You are an inspiration to me and to all who have the opportunity to watch you play. I wish you all the very best and thank you for making a difference in my life”.

One of the players, a nineteen year-old called Emmanuel offers advice to those thinking about taking part in the future: “Just come out here, not to play football but to experience something new for the future. ‘Cause that’s what it is. It’s for the future. So enjoy it.”

Another Team England player Mauva has proven this statement to be true by building herself a brighter future having been involved with the programme. “I have my own home; and I am now employed, doing what I love most. I am eating more healthily and have now lost nearly 2 stone in weight since returning from Mexico City [and] have become more active. For example, during late Oct to Nov I had walked over 43
miles. I am a lot more confident in many areas of my working and private life.”

Indeed Mauva is one of players who has expressed an interest in volunteering in the coming year, as a mentor to help other people to get the opportunity to turn their lives around.

As we are so regularly reminded, football is not really more important that life or death, whatever Shankly might have had us believe but as the players of Team England and the Homeless FA have shown it can be instrumental in altering a person’s quality of life for the better.

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