The football scheme whose real goal is to rebuild shattered lives
Two young Belfast men who have experienced homelessness explain to Stephanie Bell how an innovative soccer initiative rescued them when depression and addiction led them right to the brink of suicide.
Scores of young homeless people are escaping their harsh lives on the streets and finding new purpose thanks to a unique soccer project here.
With Christmas looming, the plight of Northern Ireland's homeless is put into sharper focus as the rest of us look forward to festivities in warm homes surrounded by our loved ones.
As Homelessness Awareness Week comes to an end, it is heartening to be able to mark it by highlighting a positive story about a very special scheme which has been helping hundreds of young people turn their lives around.
Street Soccer NI was set up six years ago and is run by the East Belfast Mission and partnered by the NI Housing Executive.
It uses football to engage and motivate young homeless people, and provides support and access to a range of services to help them get into employment and secure homes of their own.
There are four projects in Belfast and one in Londonderry with a three-year plan to roll it out right across the province.
Currently there are over 19,000 people homeless here, around 5,000 of whom are in Belfast alone.
Street Soccer NI project leader Aidan Byrne, who works for Hosford Homeless Hostel run by the East Belfast Mission, explains how the scheme is helping to reduce these numbers.
"Football has the ability to inspire people and change their lives," he says.
"There are obvious health benefits, but the real hook is motivation which is a big issue with a lot of these young people.
"It also gives them self confidence and helps them to make friends and build up social contacts.
"We then have partnerships with local mental health and employability organisations to offer support services to the young people. These help with things like addiction and mental health, as well as interview skills and job searching.
"Through local homeless organisations, we also offer support with housing access."
Street Soccer NI also runs the annual NI Homeless World Cup Team. The team, all local lads, come from the Street Soccer projects.
Every year 70 countries take part in a 10-day World Cup tournament and for the past three years a Northern Ireland team has travelled to events in Poland, Chile and Amsterdam.
"This is our most intensive programme. The players are selected around April and then take part in six months of training and residentials," says Aidan.
"Of the eight players who were on the team last year, five of them are now in full-time work, which coming from a homeless background, is phenomenal.
"And all eight of the 2014 team now have their own home."
The project is aimed at young people aged from 17 to 30 years old who are homeless.
Most of them will have faced a series of difficulties since they were very young.
Victims of circumstance, many will find themselves alone, vulnerable and homeless in their teens often as the result of a challenging family life.
"Many will have experienced extreme violence at a young age including seeing family members shot, while others have had alcoholic parents and have suffered neglect," says Aidan.
"They mostly have very low educational levels and are isolated. Some have never worked and are in a situation where they are inactive, alone and without hope."
Earlier this week Street Soccer NI was given £10,000 funding boost from the Housing Executive to roll out its scheme to more people in need provincewide.
We talk to two young Belfast men who had reached such a low point they felt they had nothing to live for before joining Street Soccer which helped them to find a new purpose.
'I was afraid to open up and ask for help which was a mistake'
Steven Weldon (30) from west Belfast is a volunteer coach with the charity and captained the World Cup team in 2013 in Poznan. He has experienced homelessness and is now a role model, developing a career in coaching. He says:
After a relationship breakdown and losing my job through depression, I became homeless in my 20s. I slept on the sofas of friends and stayed with my late grandad.
After that I lived in a bedsit for three years, which was so cold and full of damp that I might as well have been sleeping on the street. Then I got a place in a hostel, where I lived for two and a half years.
After joining Street Soccer I got the confidence to go to the Housing Executive and I got my own flat in March 2014 - it is brilliant to finally have somewhere safe to come home to.
I have a good family, but when I got depressed I felt that I would be a burden if I turned to them for help, so I tried to cope on my own. I now know that was wrong and that asking for help is not a weakness, but the right thing to do. I know my mum would have been there for me if she had known and she did help me through my depression when she found out.
I worked as a security man in a shop in west Belfast, but because I was catching shoplifters who lived in my own area, I was constantly being threatened. I had a gun pointed at me once and knives pulled on me.
I had to leave the job because I didn't feel safe at work and that's when my problems started. I was staying with my grandad for a while and was very depressed.
I had lost interest in everything and drifted from place to place. I was staying on friends' settees, but couldn't do it anymore as I felt it wasn't fair.
I know my mum and dad would have given me a place to stay, but I was too embarrassed to ask them.
I had always been a strong character but I was afraid to open up and ask for help, which I now think was a stupid mistake.
I tried to take my own life. I just felt it would be easier if I wasn't here anymore. I was in a very dark place.
My GP said he would refer me for help, but he never got in touch and that left me with no faith in doctors. It was at that point I finally turned to my family, who got me through.
I got a place in the hostel because I wanted to stand on my own two feet and be independent.
It was through a friend I heard about Street Soccer and I went along with him one Friday night.
We won the tournament that night and it was a brilliant feeling.
It really lifted me and helped me to start believing in myself again.
Going to the football also taught me discipline and it gave me confidence. I successfully completed a Level One coaching certificate thanks to the charity and now I volunteer as a coach. Street Soccer has really helped me to turn my life around. I can open up now and talk.
I was applying for jobs and maybe only one out of 10 would write back, so you are just waiting and waiting and hoping. It is easy to despair, but the charity has shown me the importance of having a plan in order to achieve your goals in life.
I definitely want to get into employment again as well as coaching.
If I can help someone I will. The work done by the charity is unbelievable, the opportunities and support they give are just amazing. It did change my life, which is why I like to volunteer now.
They have given me self-belief and that is all you need."
'I came back wanting to sort my life out and set some targets'
Gerard Toner (25) from Belfast is unemployed. He has been homeless since he was 16 and tragically wanted to end his life earlier this year, but says that Street Soccer NI gave him something to live for. He says:
I have been homeless since I was 16 because of a breakdown in family relations. I had nowhere to sleep at first and found a garden shed to lie down in one night which was really tough. Since then I have lived in a number of hostels in the city.
I have worked in a number of jobs over the years, but I am currently unemployed and looking for work.
When I was in my mid-teens I was hanging about with a group of people who were 10-15 years older than me and I developed a problem with cannabis which I am now getting treatment for.
Around February of this year I saw the posters for Street Soccer in my hostel and the staff there encouraged me to go. I used to be into football and I was a bit apprehensive when I first went, but gradually as I got to meet people I was really glad I did.
It helps you to clear your head of any worries and gives you a psychological boost.
In the summer time my partner of seven years took her own life on July 15 and that really knocked me back; two weeks later I tried to take my own life.
I started to drink for about six weeks and didn't go to football. I had been picked to go to the World Cup in Amsterdam in September and I really wanted to go. I decided to go back to the football, but I had a plan that after Amsterdam I would try to take my own life again.
When I came back from Amsterdam, though, I had a completely different perspective on life. I was the top goal scorer for the team, scoring 14 goals, and we were the first team from Northern Ireland to make it to 24th position out of 50 teams.
The way it went and the people I met all changed my outlook and I came back wanting to sort my life out and set myself some goals. I am getting the keys to my first flat next week and I got a grant to help me buy a sofa. Some of the guys at football are helping me with pots and pans, so I should be sorted pretty quickly.
If it wasn't for street soccer, I wouldn't be here now. If you feel low or depressed it is the place to go, it's saved my life."
How street soccer keeps scoring
- All of the 2014 NI Street Soccer World Cup team have been rehoused
- Three people have acquired Level One IFA badges; two have become volunteer coaches and role models to others in their community. Three more intend to complete the qualification. Three or four will be running drop-in football coaching sessions for the charity in 2015. One will have the opportunity to be volunteer coach for the 2015 team competing in Amsterdam in September
- Two people have completed a programme of support from an employability service including CV building and interview skills, and one has acquired full-time employment
- One has completed a training programme at The Prince's Trust and now has a volunteer position as ambassador for the Prince's Trust, inspiring others to make changes in their lives
- One signed a semi-professional contract for Bangor FC He is only 18 years old and has a promising career ahead of him
- Three people have completed an IFA referee course and are now qualified to undertake paid refereeing
- Four have volunteered to carry out regular promotional work including speaking to the media and at conferences
- No participants have been involved with the criminal justice system since the project
- All are involved in regular sport, including 11-a-side football
- Nine participants have completed a five month programme (including fitness regime, team building etc), represented their country at an international tournament and completed a programme in Drug Awareness and in Mental Health Awareness. They have also competed in the All-Ireland tournament in Dublin
- Each player receives an international cap from the IFA for representing their country