Incredible journey out of homelessness with soccer 

click to enlarge Filmmaker Micha X. Peled, left, kicks a ball around with Antoine Lagarde, coach for the U.S. team in the Homeless World Cup. City resident Peled filmed a documentary on the team. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/the s.f. examiner
  • Filmmaker Micha X. Peled, left, kicks a ball around with Antoine Lagarde, coach for the U.S. team in the Homeless World Cup. City resident Peled filmed a documentary on the team.

A person going from living on the streets to enjoying an all-expenses-paid trip to Europe -- where she is called on to represent the United States -- is impressive.

But to have that person also transform from an invisible human to a valued person with a job and a future? That's an incredible journey.

Documentary filmmaker Micha X. Peled heard this tale and followed it. As an avid soccer fan, he knew sports had transformative potential, but this was something else entirely.

He spent almost two years following eight women, including one San Franciscan, on their paths from living on the streets to playing for the U.S. in the Homeless World Cup last year in Poland.

The result, the feature-length "Goal! An Incredible Journey," is now $20,000 away from completion. Peled is hoping that a Kickstarter campaign can help finish the film and spread the good news.

Homeless shelters and nonprofit outreach centers in San Francisco and 15 other major cities around the country occasionally receive an unusual visitor: a coach with Street Soccer USA, an outreach program that tries to give homeless people the tools to turn their lives around using the skills necessary to play on a soccer team.

The concepts are all simple: show up. Help other people. Set goals, and show focus and be disciplined in order to meet those goals. It sounds like the stuff of motivational posters, but proof of its efficacy can be found in Gina Sykes.

The San Francisco resident was on the streets when she joined one of the teams organized by the local office of Street Soccer USA.

She's now in housing, in a Tenderloin single-room-occupancy hotel, and working towards a cosmetology certification. And on the way, she went to Poland last summer with women from Minneapolis, Charlotte, N.C., and other cities, all with similar stories.

Peled had never heard of any of this -- street soccer, the Homeless World Cup or San Francisco's role in it all -- just a few years ago. That intrigued the lifelong soccer fan (and supporter of London-based Arsenal) and longtime resident.

Peled met Antoine Lagarde, the team's coach, who was a further testament to soccer as a solution to street living. Lagarde, a UC Berkeley graduate, had ended up on the streets after trying to treat what turned out to be bipolar disorder with alcohol.

A team environment allows a once or current homeless person to get away from some of the most debilitating aspects of the condition: a numbing isolation on top of a feeling of worthlessness. On a field, in front of cheering crowds, "You can express emotions again," he said, noting that street players have a level of coolness the pros might envy. "In four or five years of coaching, I've never had someone talk back to a referee."

The success rate street soccer players enjoy is astounding: 75 percent of players who begin the program "meet their goals" within a year, according to Rob Cann, national director and co-founder of Street Soccer USA. That's whether that goal is getting off the street into housing, getting clean or finding a job. Compare that to a 15 percent success rate using other forms of outreach.

It does not work with everyone. Not everyone on the street wants to play a team sport. Others, because of physical or mental limitations, simply cannot.

But for those who can, "The discipline of sports is life-changing," said Bevan Dufty, Mayor Ed Lee's homeless czar, who will be in attendance when Street Soccer USA has its national championships at the Civic Center Plaza this August.

Peled's other films -- among them "China Blue," about how teenage Chinese workers earning six cents an hour make our jeans, and "Bitter Seeds," delving into why a quarter-million Indian farmers using Monsanto seeds commit suicide every year -- have aired on PBS.

By contrast, this is a fairy tale story. To see "Goal! The Incredible Journey" broadcast, Peled is looking for help to cover post-production costs. He has a Kickstarter, which, with under three weeks to go, is almost one-third towards its $30,000 goal.

He's hoping other Arsenal fans gathering this Saturday to watch the Gunners play in the English Football Association Cup -- a combination viewing party and fundraiser at Maggie McGarry's pub in North Beach -- will chip in. After all, they can all relate.

On a soccer field or in the stands, "You forget about the rest of your troubles," Peled said. "You can even forget that you're homeless."

Goal! The Incredible Journey

San Francisco filmmaker Micha X. Peled is trying to finish a documentary on Street Soccer USA.



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About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has worked as a reporter in San Francisco since 2008, with an emphasis on city governance and politics, The City’s neighborhoods, race, poverty and the drug war.
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