Keith Deisner, director of development at Peter & Paul Community Services in Soulard, is a soccer nut. Colleagues know him as the guy who wears a different European soccer jersey to work every Friday, the one who had to get satellite television in order to watch the World Cup.
"I once paid fifteen [British] pounds to read a live Internet transcript of a game between Liverpool and this little speck of a club named Havant & Waterlooville," he says. But the first time the 40-year-old Deisner heard about a national homeless soccer league, he was skeptical: "It just sounded so out there. I just thought, 'Come on, no way.'"
A year later, Deisner's mind has changed.
Deisner and David Flomo, a former child soldier from Liberia, started St. Louis' first homeless soccer team in May. Their players come from the shelter operated by Peter & Paul at 8th and Allen streets. Every Friday night the men stow their belongings in the shelter, then head out to a nearby parking lot that doubles as their playing field. For 90 minutes they run laps and drills under the tutelage of Flomo and four assistant coaches, including Deisner. The game is street soccer, played four-on-four on an enclosed paved surface about the size of a tennis court, with halves that run seven minutes each.
What the team lacks in gear — like practice jerseys and proper sneakers — they make up for with enthusiasm. "With the situation most of us are in, we don't get a chance, number one, to exercise; and number two, to just be pleasant with other guys," says Vince, 44, a local construction worker who asked to be identified by his first name because coworkers don't know he is homeless. "There's a lot more camaraderie out here, and we take that off the field."
Now Deisner finds himself proselytizing for the program every chance he gets: "Whenever I tell people about it, they give me this look like I'm pulling their leg. But I'm telling you, this thing is real, and it's big."
So big, in fact, that St. Louis' six-man squad is headed to the Homeless USA Cup in Washington, D.C., later this month on a $1,800 travel grant proffered by the national governing body of homeless soccer, Charlotte-based Street Soccer USA. Albeit a long shot, if any of the local players impress Street Soccer representatives in D.C., the men could be chosen for the national team traveling to Melbourne, Australia, later this year for the 2008 Homeless World Cup.
Yes, homeless soccer is an international phenomenon, replete with corporate sponsors including Nike and UEFA (Union of European Football Associations). Seventeen teams suited up for the first Homeless World Cup in Graz, Austria, in 2003. This year more than 50 teams are expected to compete. Organizers boast that year after year, nearly three-quarters of the tournament participants transform their lives in some meaningful way: getting a home of their own, leaving behind drugs and alcohol, resuming school, going back to work.
Rob and Lawrence Cann, brothers and longtime soccer players who now call North Carolina home, first escorted a U.S. delegation to the World Cup two years ago. Though the team came nowhere near a title berth, the news of their pursuit spawned teams at homeless agencies nationwide.
"It's a program that gives people a goal to come back to every week," says Rob Cann, whose Charlotte-based team practices two or three times a week, year-round. "They see their body transform through training. And it's looking at guys for what they can do, as opposed to what they're struggling with."
Competing for the first time, St. Louis is one of twelve teams planning to suit up for the third annual Homeless USA Cup in D.C. The title match, on June 29, will be played outside Robert F. Kennedy Stadium – right after the homeless players take in Major League Soccer's D.C. United versus LA Galaxy game. "I can't believe our guys are going to get a chance to see David Beckham play!" enthuses Deisner. "Isn't that a scream?"
A life-long soccer player, St. Louis' Liberian coach David Flomo is quite the physical specimen: five-foot-eleven, 230 pounds, thighs the size of watermelons. He says he was homeless for more than a decade after being drafted into the Liberian army when he was sixteen. It was soccer that sustained him through many difficult years, eventually earning him scholarships for high school and college in Ghana and Kenya, Flomo explains. He now holds a master's in social work from Washington University and is completing a master's in public health at Saint Louis University.
"It was not only resilience that I had to have to reach this level," says the 33-year-old Flomo. "It is the self-esteem that I got from playing soccer, the good health and physical strength it gave me." He adds: "You can see my homeless team is not physically fit at all, but if they have this goal, of just winning one game — not even a trophy — I think it can give them a sense of accomplishment, and help get them off the street."
The Cup rules say a player must have been homeless within the last year before competition — a standard not easily proved with paperwork, per se. Local coaches are supposed to get to know the players well enough to vet their credentials. As Flomo and Deisner have learned, there's a certain amount of serendipity involved in assembling a team.
"It was difficult at first to get guys who were committed, because shelter guys come and go," explains Deisner. The men who now make up the St. Louis team don't adhere to what he calls "your stereotypical homeless guy on the side of the highway, collecting money with a sign." Most of the players work, and hope to leave the shelter as soon as possible.
Take Vince, the construction worker. He says he was once an IT professional until his marriage broke up. Then Vince became a contractor for a time and lived out of a camper until it was stolen from south county about two months ago. He lost everything. Vince arrived at Peter & Paul just as the soccer team was getting started. Having played for the University of Missouri-Kansas City, he quickly signed up. "I look forward to this every week," he says. "We give each other a lot of moral support."
The youngest member of the team, 24-year-old Daniel, holds down a job preparing food at the Centenary Church kitchen. He moved into the transitional housing program at Peter & Paul in May, hoping it might motivate him to work harder to get a roof over his head. "I could've continued staying with family, but I was starting to be co-dependent on them. I want to get something for myself, and do it by myself."
Daniel says he first thought the soccer team sounded like a fun distraction; now he's getting more out of it than he imagined. "You're looking at the big picture with this," says Daniel. "You're planning for something."
Deisner and Flomo aren't betting any money that their team will return with a trophy. "What I would like," says Flomo, "is the consistency: to come back home and keep the team going, to get to the point where we, too, can practice several times a week."
Vince, meanwhile, says he'll stick around as long as he's at the shelter. "I commend them for doing this. Not a lot of guys would. I mean, homeless soccer — it's a little out there, don't you think?"
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