Shtan Gbalanga, 20, catches his breath on the sidelines during a strenuous game in San Francisco, California. Shtan, a new player to the team, became homeless a few months prior. He’s staying in a shelter while one of the coaches helps him sort out some immigration issues. Shtan was born in France and moved to San Francisco four years ago. “It’s a bit difficult to be self sufficient without a social security number,” he said.
Street Soccer USA serves mostly “emerging adults” or “transitional-aged youth,” ages 18 to 30, focusing on those who are homeless. Isabella Black (center) describes the team as “like the family you want to have.”
Eduardo Palomo, 60, laces his shoes before a game in San Francisco, Calif., on Thursday, October 8, 2015. Coaches incorporate skills or life lessons each week that translate from the pitch to outside life. One of those is “playing with heart.”
Isabella Black, 23, waits for a game to start in San Francisco, Calif., on Thursday, October 29, 2015. Isabella left home for San Francisco so she could be a in safe place to transition. One day when she was still living as a man, she was feeling bad about the way she looked. A friend saw her crying and called her “Isabella,” explaining it meant “beautiful.” It stuck. “Every now and then, people catch me on the bus saying, ‘Is beautiful.’ And they’re like, ‘What’s beautiful?’ And I say, ‘I am.'”
‘Change’ is the name of the team, part of an international league that helps individuals find stable housing and better lives. The coaches also acts case managers, helping the players reach goals, mostly off the field. Through weekly practices and games, the sports structure offers life coaching skills with the goal of empowering players to lead independent lives. Team Change competes with other teams from around the city every week.
A player stretches before a Street Soccer game in San Francisco, California on Thursday, October 1, 2015.
Danielle Williams, 42, tends to her baby, Liam, as Al DeGroat sits with them. Danielle had been homeless for nearly 20 years and was on meth when she got introduced to street soccer. “Technically, it was soccer that got me sober,” she said. “It was either playing soccer or getting high. I wanted to play soccer.” About three months after that, she found out she was pregnant.
Isabella eats a burger while walking back to the pitch before the team’s weekly game. Her wife’s food stamps had run out so Isabella lent her her card. Isabella hadn’t had much food that week, so she asked a teammate for a dollar so she could buy a hamburger from McDonald’s.
The Street Soccer team stretches before a game.
Alfred ‘Al’ DeGroat rests between game time. Al has been on the team for about four years, though was temporarily suspended awhile for alcohol abuse. “Soccer helps me keep my depression at bay,” he says and also helps him cope with his anxiety and bipolar disorder. “It’s a way of helping me get back to where I need to be.”
A person sleeps in the park where the Street Soccer team plays games each week in the Mission District of San Francisco, Calif., on Thursday, October 29, 2015. “I don’t look homeless, I don’t fit the persona,” player Isabella Black said. “There’s a few stages of homelessness: there’s completely out on the streets where you have to fight to survive everyday and there’s the homeless where I’m at: in a SRO (Single Room Occupancy).”
In San Francisco, where rents now surpass all other cities in the country, affordable housing is a dire and glaring issue. More than 7,500 people without homes seek shelter and survival. Street Soccer USA works to address homelessness through athletics. The program builds sports teams that seek to engage low-income youth and young adults who are homeless by using sports as a way to empower them to lead independent lives.
Preston Gannaway/for ESPN
Produced with support from TheDocumentaryProjectFund and Economic Hardship Reporting Project