Homeless at Christmas: Northern Ireland football charity helping people turn their lives around
It's the time to be merry, but for people without a roof of their own over their heads, the Christmas season is not so festive. However, one local charity with a difference is determined to do something about it. Laurence White reports
With Christmas less than three weeks away, this is the season when the thoughts of most people turn to families, presents and festivities. It is a time of joy, in most cases, ahead of the bleakest winter months.
But there are significant numbers of people who don't share this tinsel-tinted vision. To them, it is just another day of homelessness, another day when they haven't got a roof they can call their own over their heads.
They may sofa-surf with friends for a few days at a time, live in hostels or, in exceptional cases, sleep rough on the streets, but there is a charity which offers an escape route for some.
It is Street Soccer NI, which uses football to transform the lives of some of the most marginalised and disadvantaged in our society.
Aidan Byrne, who helped set up the charity, explains how it works. "I was a support worker in a homeless hostel run by East Belfast Mission and, along with Justin McMinn, we started organising football games for homeless residents," he says. "Almost immediately, we noticed it had a massive benefit for them, physically and mentally. As time progressed, they were more likely to engage with other support agencies to help with the various issues that faced them.
"We linked up with funders - the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and Co-Ownership, the Department for Communities, Belfast City Council, East Belfast Mission, the IFA and Linfield in the Community. For the last seven years, our charity, Street Soccer NI, has been helping people.
"Around 150 people across Northern Ireland, both men and women, are engaged with us.
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"While football is the hook to bring them in, we have built a support network around that, including training and employment, access to housing and education. Our aim is to enable the participants to stay out of homelessness for the long term."
Stephen McIlveen, project manager with the Uniting Communities initiative run by the Department for Communities, says the project is specifically targeted at young people.
"Our core aim is to create leaders for the future, but we realised that not all young people are able to step into a leadership programme," he adds.
"In Street Soccer, we saw an initiative which helped participants increase their confidence and social skills and gain access to support, which can help them make positive changes to their lives.
"Being able to take part in tournaments like the Homeless World Cup, which has been held in countries like Norway and Mexico, is a reward for those young people. We noticed that, when they returned, they were even more deeply motivated to change their lives."
Young people can be recommended to the charity from such diverse organisations as hostels, other charities or Choice Housing, a social housing body.
Every participant is given a personal development plan and helped through their personal journeys.
Four of the young people taking part in this week's Six Nations football tournament to mark Homeless Awareness Week spoke to the Belfast Telegraph about their experience of homelessness and how they are turning their lives around.
‘Street Soccer has given me a chance to turn my life around’
Stephen Shields (37), from Banbridge, became homeless when his marriage broke down. His immediate family had all passed away and his only option was to go into a hostel in Belfast. He says:
"I was homeless for about a year. It was a tough and scary experience, especially at first.
I had been in rehab for a year before that because of my alcohol addiction, but I had not experienced the level of hard drugs, such as heroin, taken by those who used the hostel.
I had come from a small town in Co Down and there was not the same level of drug use, or addiction, as in Belfast. I had two children and it was hard spending Christmas in a hostel. However, the staff tried to make it as magical as they could.
One of the support workers at the hostel told me about Street Soccer and that helped me turn my life around.
I got the chance to go to the Homeless World Cup in Mexico last November.
It was the best experience of my life.
We made a lot of friends from the other teams from the UK, the Americas and even Africa and I have kept in touch with many of them through social media. It was such an honour to be there to represent your country.
When I moved out of the hostel, I got used to looking after myself, buying groceries and cleaning. I met another woman and we have a young baby. I also got a job bricklaying and I work six or seven days a week.
I want to make this a Christmas we will never forget.
I am not going back to the life I had before. I no longer drink. I cannot thank those who work with Street Soccer enough and those who work in the background to help all of us."
‘We are like extended family and now train twice a week’
Stacey Hepburn (29), co-ordinator of the women's soccer team, admits she knew nothing about football when she was first asked to join the charity. She says:
"I was working full-time in a homeless hostel in Belfast when Justin McMinn asked me if I would like to come along and play with the girls of Street Soccer every week.
Although I had no background in football, I went along and got to know the girls. I was eventually asked to go along in a support role to the Homeless World Cup in Norway in 2016.
After that, I began to take on a greater support role, talking to the girls, helping them when I could and linking them with support services.
A lot of the girls come from difficult backgrounds and it is great to see them coming to us and getting away from those issues.
Street Soccer is like an extended family, as far as we are all concerned. The number of girls attending - around 15 at the moment - has grown and we now train twice a week. I have also got my level one disability coaching badge.
It is great to see the girls improve their skills, but it also improves their mental health and that is what I enjoy.
To me, the greatest success is seeing people move from hostels to living on their own and then volunteering with different organisations, or getting work - those are the success stories."
‘The great thing is friends I’ve made from other countries’
Seanna McGuinness (34), from west Belfast, became homeless when her mum died suddenly in 2015. She and her young son were taken into Cloverhill hostel, a family hostel near her home for women and their children. Seanna got her own home in Lagmore in west Belfast, close to family members, in December 2017. She says:
"I was in Cloverhill for two-and-a-half years, during which time I had a baby girl.
Cloverhill was great and the people in it very supportive. They ran cooking, life skills and first aid courses and helped the girls prepare for moving into their own home.
Christmas in the hostel was very good. Santa arrived with presents for the children and the pensioners came in for their dinner. That created a great atmosphere. I've slight mental health problems which rear their head occasionally and date from 2010, when my brother took his own life.
When I was in Cloverhill, I began going to Street Soccer and got picked for the women's team at the World Cup in Mexico. It was fantastic. I got to play and even scored a couple of goals, but the great thing was the friends you made from other countries.
I must praise Stacey (Hepburn), the co-ordinator of the women's soccer team, and the coaches for the help they have given me. They are always there if I need them.
I will never leave Street Soccer."
‘They know about addiction and can relate to how I feel’
David McConnell (32), from the Bogside, has been involved with Street Soccer for seven years. He admits he still has some problems, but they are nothing compared to what he once faced. He says:
"I was addicted to drink and drugs since about the age of 16. I still struggle with alcohol and, occasionally, will go on a binge for a few days. I was in rehab for my alcoholism because I just couldn't stop drinking. I spent seven months in a rehab centre in Newry.
I had been taking drugs every day, blanking out reality. I was on methadone, a medication that reduces withdrawal symptoms in people addicted to narcotic drugs, for about two years, but it just seemed like two weeks. I needed the drink because cutting down on the drugs caused me to have panic attacks.
I had to leave home because I was causing too much trouble. I used to even steal my dad's drink. I would go round the city trying to get someone to buy me a drink, or give me the money for drink. It was a scary time. I didn't care if I died or not.
I was staying in the Men's Methodist Mission in Derry when someone asked me to come along to Street Soccer. I went, gave up for about a year and then went back.
The support I have received is unbelievable. I am with people who are my family away from my family. I have even made up with my own family and have had my own flat for the past two years.
These are people who know all about addiction and can relate to how I feel at times.
I am not working because I still suffer from anxiety and depression, but I have got coaching badges and life-saving qualifications. I want to work in leisure or sports and I want to help people like those who helped me.
My mental health depends on football - it gets the aggression, anxiety and any other bad feelings I have out of me.
I sometimes get flashbacks. I know I must have missed about 20 Christmas dinners because of my behaviour towards my family.
I also got into a lot of trouble because I was the mouthy one, but I haven't been in any trouble for the last couple of years."