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Our goal is to help people change lives for the better and get a kick out of sport

A football-based initiative is unlocking doors for homeless people, writes Laurence White

For five years, Belfast man James Shaw was one of the city's army of unrecorded homeless people. He refused to enter any of the city's hostels through fear.

"I felt safer living with friends," he recalls.

"Some of the hostels are good, but some are bad. I just didn't want to go into one in case something bad happened to me."

Instead, he spent several years, from the age of 19, sofa-surfing - living with friends for a couple of nights each week.

"I was surviving on benefits and the charity of the mates I had grown up with. It was a real hassle finding out where I could stay each night.

"My friends were great, but I could only stay with any one of them for two nights at a time.

"I was lucky that they were such good friends. They were there when I needed them and I know they would be there for me again if the occasion arose.

"They wouldn't see me stuck. The amazing thing is that I never ran out of friends. They are really good mates."

James (25) adds: "But it is no way to live. I got a private rented flat at one stage, but that didn't work out. I also made up with my dad and he would do my washing and look after me, but I still didn't know what I would do in the longer term."

However, a chance remark from a friend helped turn James' life around.

He told him about an initiative created by the homelessness service of East Belfast Mission for people like James.

Called Street Soccer, it taps into young men's love of the game, giving them a healthy pursuit and exposing them to services which can help them with their social and health problems - many of those involved have drink and drug addiction issues - and also assisting them in finding work, increasing their skills and getting a home.

James embraced the initiative, which has given him a totally new outlook on life.

He says: "Street Soccer introduced me to a housing officer from the Housing Executive, who managed to find me a home where I can now have my little daughter, who is almost three, stay with me three nights a week.

"I have also joined a back-to-work scheme, where I take part in training courses aimed at getting me employment. I have worked as a cleaner, mostly through work experience placements, and hopefully I will get a job soon."

But Street Soccer also helped him develop as a person.

He was part of the eight-man Northern Ireland squad which took part in the Homeless World Cup in Amsterdam last year - an experience which he describes as the highlight of his life.

"Sometimes, I would think that my position was terrible, but it was nothing compared to people in other countries. Essentially, homelessness is not a nice thing.

"Of course, I still have my dark days and my good days. But, then, so do most people.

"I would certainly encourage anyone who is homeless to join Street Soccer. It is great craic and there is always the opportunity to represent your country at the Homeless World Cup, which this year is being held in Scotland.

"You also get to meet people who know what you are going through and who have similar problems to you. I actually had made loads of new friends."

Another Belfast man, Gerard Toner (25), shares James' views.

At one time, he contemplated taking his own life after the tragic death of a girlfriend. "It was the worst year of my life, a very bad time," he says. "It affected me mentally."

He was already in a fragile state of mind. "My relationship with my family broke down because of my alcohol and drug abuse and behavioural problems. I ended up in a hostel. I had never envisaged myself to be in such a place. In fact, I had always looked down on those places and the people who stayed there, but then, suddenly, there I was in the same situation."

While in the hostel, Gerard saw a poster about Street Soccer and decided to give it a try. He had always been interested in playing football.

"I didn't really know anyone when I went to the first session, but I quickly learned that they were all coming from the same sort of situation as myself."

He, too, took part in last year's Homeless World Cup.

"I didn't know what to expect, but it was fantastic,"he says. "I was really buzzing. We played in the opening match of the tournament and it was like real, professional soccer.

"We were all lined up at the start for the match against the host country and were introduced to officials. It was an experience I will never forget."

Gerard now has a two-bedroom flat and sees his young son every week. He has yet to find a job, but is confident that that may happen.

Street Soccer was the brainchild of Aidan Byrne and Justin McMinn six years ago. At the time, both worked with the Hosford homeless service at East Belfast Mission in the Skainos Centre.

Aidan says: "We were holding five-a-side football games in the church hall and saw the positive impact the game had on the physical and mental health of those taking part. It gave them confidence, enabled them to make new friends and brought structure back into their lives."

From those early beginnings, Street Soccer NI has expanded and there are now four projects in Belfast - two in the east of the city and one each in north and south Belfast.

Other projects are based in Dungannon and Londonderry, although funding for the latter has just run out.

The principal supporters of the projects are the Housing Executive - which has just purchased a portable mini-pitch of the type used in the Homeless World Cup - the Ulster Bank and the Irish Football Association.

Aidan adds: "Football has its own health benefits, but we have also built a support package around it aimed at increasing the men's employability, addressing the mental health and addiction problems and giving them the opportunity to get and keep a home. Essentially, our aim is to ensure that they make longer-term progress in their lives.

"We take the players on trips to other parts of Ireland to play other teams. These trips help to motivate them and give them something to look forward to.

"A lot of them may never have left the area where they grew up for years and the trips help them to engage with new people and show them a world outside their normal environment."

Justin, who is now a full-time co-ordinator of the projects thanks to one-year funding from the Housing Executive, says that the six centres attract around 120 people each week.

"It is a big job finding staff for each of the projects and getting funding for them. We can run a single project for about £5,000 a year, which is not a lot of money given the change it can bring to people's lives.

"There are also unseen benefits, such as a reduction in crime. Some of those who have come through the projects may have been in trouble with the police at some stage of their lives, perhaps stealing to fund their addictions. If we can change their lifestyles, then that helps society in general."

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What sponsors say

Liam Kinney, head of homelessness, Housing Executive:

"We have provided £73,000 of funding towards the development of Street Soccer across Northern Ireland, so that vulnerable young people are engaged with a view to finding them sustainable housing solutions. This support programme has helped transform the lives of those who have experienced homelessness. The Housing Executive has also supported the NI Homeless World Cup team."

Sean Murphy from Ulster Bank:

" Street Soccer NI is an innovative way of engaging people in difficult circumstances, helping grow their confidence and skills so they can play a strong part in the local community. It's about inspiring and supporting change to enable people to play a positive role in society."

Michael Boyd, director of football development at the IFA:

"The IFA is proud to support Street Soccer NI because of the impact it makes in transforming lives for the better and getting people active."

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