06/25/2013 06:21 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Playing Soccer for Social Change

This past weekend I attended the West Coast Cup for Social Change put on by Street Soccer USA in San Francisco's Justin Herman Plaza. Street Soccer USA is an organization that is tackling homelessness in a unique way. They are using sports as a way to help homeless men and women across the country secure jobs and housing, find education opportunities and attend rehab programs to get clean and sober.

This one of a kind non-profit organization also puts on the annual Homeless National Cup in New York's Times Square, and even more impressive, they send one men's and one women's team to represent the U.S. in the Homeless World Cup, which will take place August 10 - 18 in Poznan, Poland this year. Some of the World Cup team players are individuals who earlier this year were living on park benches, not knowing where their next meal would come from. Later this summer they will board an international flight to represent the United States in a soccer tournament that includes 64 countries.

This year was the first annual West Coast Cup put on by Street Soccer USA and included participation of homeless soccer teams from Seattle, Portland, Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Francisco, among other adult teams from corporations that sponsored the event. I was involved in a behind the scenes look at the Cup as part of a documentary crew from Teddy Bear Films and filmmaker Micha X. Peled, who are making a film about the journey that these men and women take from living on the streets to becoming international champions. Most of these individuals have endured immense suffering in their past, some of them barely making it out alive. Playing soccer is the only thing that has made a difference in the perpetuation of their hopelessness.

The organizers from SSUSA recruit players by going into the local shelters here in San Francisco and loudly asking the crowded room of disheveled people who have just come in from the streets, "Who wants to play soccer?!" Many of these humbled folks are hesitant or confused, not really believing that playing soccer has any significance to them. But there are a few who are intrigued. They go to a practice. They meet other players who are also homeless. They play a game. They realize that this is the most fun they've had in as long as they can remember. And this is the beginning of the program that currently has a 75 percent success rate of integrating its homeless participants back into society.

One of these current participants is Ablaza Grant who will be a featured character in the Teddy Bear Films' documentary. I got to know Ablaza (who usually goes by Grant) fairly well during my time working on the film. His story is similar to many young homeless men; he couldn't finish college because of the high cost, he did some jail time, he lost several jobs, the bills started adding up and soon enough he couldn't afford rent. But his future will be radically different.


Grant has been living in a shelter since moving to San Francisco from New Orleans earlier this year, and that's how he found out about the Street Soccer program. He decided to join because although he had never played soccer before, he had always been an athlete in high school and missed the adrenalin rush. Now, months later, Grant is employed in a restaurant, on his way to moving out of the shelter and into transitional housing and will very likely be representing the United States in the Homeless World Cup in Poland this August.

I was present at the closing ceremony for the West Coast Cup on Sunday when SSUSA's National Director, Rob Cann, announced the candidates for this year's men's and women's U.S. World Cup teams. It was pretty hard not to get choked up when he called Grant's name. Grant may have been obligated to play the tough guy and keep a straight face, but as an athlete and as a truly dedicated person, I know how much pride he must have felt in that moment. Street Soccer USA hopes they can give that sense of pride to a million more homeless people all over the country for many years to come.