EVERY DAY I walk past a young girl who sits in Bishopsgate, the City of London, asking people to smile. She always looks tired and stiff after a night sleeping on the street. Occasionally, I give her some change – once or twice, I have bought her a coffee. I’m ashamed to say, that doesn’t happen too often.
It’s easy to walk past people like this girl and her outstretched hand, many of whom have tragic personal stories, but you know that if your life suddenly got turned upside down, you could find yourself in similar circumstances. I would be lying if I said I have ever done enough to help.
In an age when we can send people into space, develop weapons that can wipe-out mankind and feed ourselves to excess in some parts of the world, scenes of the young and old on the street seem positively medieval. Personally, I cannot imagine what goes through their mind or how they survive against the odds.
Many people classify the homeless as an underclass that has no rights or right to do anything other than grin and bear it. But the one thing people who are down on their luck need is hope. The feeling that they can have a better life at some point in their existence. A light at the end of the tunnel.
If you’re homeless and without income, watching football is almost impossible. But even the homeless are football fans, even the homeless can play football. We watched, and admired, the performance of the England Women in the last World Cup. One of the squad, Fara Williams, was homeless for seven years. Football helped turn her life around.
And this is one of the aims of the Homeless World Cup, which this year takes place in Glasgow. The president of the Homeless World Cup Foundation, Mel Young, captured the spirit of the competition when he described it as “a real celebration of optimism”. He added: “We will have 512 players with us and every single one of them is at some stage of their journey towards a more stable future.” The Homeless World Cup also, according to Young, breaks down barriers – between the players on the pitch – i.e. the homeless – and the spectators and helps remove steterotyping.
You get the feeling that at this annual event everyone’s a winner. There are eight trophies to compete for, six in the men’s section and two for women. Last year, in Amsterdam, Mexico were world champions for both genders. The Mexican men’s team, which had been finalists in 2011, 2012 and 2013, won 12 of their 13 games, scoring 91 goals. In the final, they beat Ukraine 5-2. The women won their title for the third time, scoring 108 goals in the process. They beat Chile 3-1 in the final. The pictures, footage and reports will tell you that these victories brought great joy to the people involved. Likewise, a documentary made by Daniel Bilenko, “Hopp Suisse!”, tells the story of three homeless young men on their way from Switzerland to Amsterdam for last year’s tournament. It’s an emotional piece of film.
The Homeless World Cup comes at a time when Europe, indeed the world, is facing a huge challenge around migration. One alarming statistic tells us that there are already 100 million homeless people in the world today. There are around 50,000 in the UK according to official statistics. These figures are sure to grow as the geopolitical environment changes the shape of the map. I find it hard to believe there are fewer than 500 people sleeping rough in London when I see so many pleading for assistance in the capital.
The competition is a good example of using football as a force for good, and , importantly, it is not run to make any organisation, club or individual look good. As the co-founder, Mel Young, says, the ultimate aim of the Homeless World Cup is for it not to exist as homelessness should not prevail. “That will require systemic change,” he admits.
Game of the People will travel to the Homeless World Cup this summer. Photographer David Eustace, speaking a year ago, got it in one when he said: “These people don’t want your pity, they just want a chance.”
Some clubs’ football fans have arranged food-bank collections to help people in need of support. As Game of the People has mentioned before, there is enormous potential among football fans to act as a change agent. Clubs offer concessions for senior citizens, the unemployed, the young and disabled. How about extending that to the homeless?