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How Street Soccer charity has given homeless women a sporting chance

'Being involved helps me cope with addiction and keeps me out of trouble'

By Una Brankin

A unique women's football team is about to represent Northern Ireland in the inaugural 5 Nations Cup. Una Brankin talks to two of the players who'll be taking part

Emma Fisher and Tracey Patterson are good examples of how homelessness doesn't always equal hopelessness. The sporty pair are proud members of Northern Ireland's first ever homeless women's football team, who will compete today and tomorrow in the inaugural Homeless 5 Nations Cup, organised by Street Soccer NI, at the Queen's Physical Education Centre in Botanic Park, Belfast.

The charity sees the women's team as the first step to developing more programmes for female players across Northern Ireland and, ultimately, to bringing our first women's team to the next Homeless World Cup in Oslo next summer.

As the tournament begins, Tracey and Emma tell us how a little footie goes a long way to building up their self-esteem.

Tracey Patterson (27) made headlines in 2011 when she fell asleep in the public gallery in court when facing shoplifting charges. Formerly living in a Divis Tower flat, Tracey has been homeless for many years and now lives at the Simon Community hostel in north Belfast. She plays centre back with Street Soccer NI. Tracey says:

I've been addicted to drugs - mostly prescription - for years and my addiction has got me into all sorts of trouble. That day in court, I was so high I couldn't stay awake. I got nine months in Hydebank (young offenders centre and prison). It was terrible. It was actually quite easy to get drugs in there.

Drugs were a way of helping me cope, to numb myself. I also self-harmed. I was sexually abused at a time and it went to court. This caused a lot of problems and I later walked out of my home.

I was never offered help until I got in touch with Start 360 (support services for young people and adult offenders) - they used to be called Opportunity Youth.

They kept me out of trouble and moved me into the hostel. It's brilliant here.

The staff are amazing; they treat you with respect. I've got my own flat and do my own cooking and washing, and I've made good friends.

I'm not completely off drugs but I'm weaning myself off gradually. I get some counselling at the hostel with Jigsaw, the mental health charity, which is very good. I was never offered any form of counselling after the abuse.

I'd love a home of my own some day but for the time being, I just want to keep going, stay out of trouble and play street soccer.

I've a boyfriend but it's just casual.

My family know where I am, but I don't think we'll be making up. They don't keep in contact. It does trouble me and makes me feel like self-harming again, but I don't do it because my wee brother's in care and if I cut my arms again, I wouldn't be allowed to see him.

He's 11. My mum couldn't cope with him after my dad died three years ago. One good thing about Hydebank was that I learned to cook there and did a Level One chef's course.

I cook in the hostel sometimes. The staff give me recipes and help me cook something. I like making stir-fries and stuff. I'm hoping to get work in a restaurant to get more experience.

Being involved in the women's football team is really helping me cope with my addiction and keeping me out of trouble.

Knowing I'm being picked to represent my country is a brilliant feeling. I've a lot more confidence in myself now.

I have one of my front teeth missing and I was always covering my mouth when I smiled, but I'm all right now. I score goals and smile away. I was always quite sporty as a kid but I never imagined being a player on a football pitch. It's quite tough but I love it."

‘It’s been great fun, it keeps my mind active and helps my mental health ...’

Emma Fisher is staying at a hostel in east Belfast. The 18-year-old, who is about to start a course in mechanical engineering at Belfast Met college, is the goalkeeper on the team. Emma says:

I’ve been at the hostel for the last five months, because of a family breakdown. My mother walked out 10 years ago and I haven’t seen her since. I haven’t seen my father since last September. I walked out after an argument and went to stay at my cousin’s for two weeks. Then they told me I had to leave and I went to a supported housing place, then a bed and breakfast.

I ended up in foster care, but I didn’t like it. It didn’t suit me so I left there and went back to my cousin’s. But they have a new-born baby and there was no room for me. We still keep in touch, though.

I came to live at the hostel in March. It’s about 15 minutes from where I used to live. The family don’t know where I am, but the ones that were worried about me contacted me. The others don’t.

This is a nice place. The facilities here are brilliant. I have my own room. It’s very spacious and I have a fridge, and a comfortable bed — once you have that, you’re flying. The staff are very supportive and good banter, too.

Every three weeks, we get chores to do — mostly brushing and mopping. And there’s a company that comes in, Root Soup, and they teach us how to cook everything.

I’ve made a good few friends here. I’m the youngest. There are some in their 60s. I feel safe here. I never went to school much, but I’ve always been interested in mechanical engineering. I suppose I am a bit of a tomboy — I play football. My dream would be to join the Royal Navy or the Army as a mechanical engineer and see the world.

I can stay at the hostel for a maximum of two years. How long I’m here depends on if I get any offers of alternative accommodation. Making up with my family isn’t important now. The way I see it, everything happens for a reason. More opportunities are opening up to me now. I’m happy enough.

I really needed something to do, so when I was asked to join the football team, I went for it. I’d like to think I’m quite a good goalie. I’ve always been an active person. I’d be quite sporty, I did track sports before.

Street Soccer is the best thing I’ve been involved in. All the other players are lovely. It feels amazing to be selected for the 5 Nations Cup and to be in the first ever women’s team. It’s been a great experience and great fun. It keeps my mind active and it has helped improve my mental health problems, and it also gets me out of the hostel for a few hours.”

Using the power of football to transform people’s lives

Street Soccer NI, in partnership with East Belfast Mission and the Housing Executive, runs projects across NI using the power of football to transform the lives of people who are homeless and other disadvantaged groups.

Alongside the football they offer support in housing, improving employment prospects, and other issues that affect their players.

The Homeless 5 Nations Cup sees men’s and women’s teams from the Republic of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, and Northern Ireland come together to compete in a 4-a-side football tournament.

Eighty players, all of whom have experienced homelessness, are taking part in the event.

Player Ryan Sharkey, from Londonderry, said: “It feels great to represent my country; my life has changed from where I was three years ago. Being involved with the team has helped me beat my alcohol addiction and has given me a real confidence boost in my ability. My goal is to get a job, get a house and provide for my baby that’s on the way in January.”

Northern Ireland’s first homeless women’s team and the Homeless Soccer 5 Nations Cup are supported by Belfast City Council, Ulster Bank, Helm Housing, Simon Community NI, Simon Community Scotland, McCombs Coach Travel, Adhaus, East Belfast Mission, Cornmill Quay, the IFA, and the Housing Executive.

Justin McMinn, co-ordinator of Street Soccer NI, says: “It’s great to have the first women’s team representing Northern Ireland. After this tournament we will be developing the first ever Homeless World Cup women’s team and will have trials in Derry and Belfast. Our aim is to have our projects wherever they are needed across NI.”

Michael Boyd, Director of Football Development IFA and Chairman of Street Soccer NI, said: “Street Soccer NI is about using the power of football to help people who are excluded to improve their lives. We are really excited about our first women’s team and our first Homeless 5 Nations Cup and the impact it is having on our players’ lives.”

Aidan Byrne, co-founder of Street Soccer NI and manager of Hosford (Homelessness Service of East Belfast Mission), said: “We are very proud to be part of this project. It’s important that people who are homeless have these opportunities to change and improve their lives. Two of our clients are on the women’s team and it’s been wonderful to see the positive impact being involved has had on their lives.”

Anne Sweeney, from the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, said: “Our support for Street Soccer NI signals our commitment to helping tackle homelessness in new and innovative ways.

“We commend this organisation for their excellent approach to dealing with this issue — which affects both men and women — they really are changing lives for the better. We wish everyone involved the best of luck with the tournament.”

The tournament takes place at Queen’s Physical Education Centre in Botanic Park, Belfast from 10am-3pm today and tomorrow, with games throughout the day. Admission is free

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