US sports: Transforming unhoused athletes from sleeping outside to the World Cup

When the ball grazed the Finnish goalkeeper, the people in the stands celebrated wildly. But Sienna Jackson stood emotionless on the pitch. The 24-year-old American forward couldn’t believe she had just scored the first goal of the Homeless World Cup, hosted for the first time in the United States.

Just a few years ago, Jackson was sleeping on the streets of downtown Sacramento, less than 5 miles away from the Hornet Stadium at California State University where she was now playing.

“I went from laying out there with the cockroaches, sleeping out with rats, to scoring a goal for my country,” Jackson said.

Organized by Street Soccer USA and its chapter in Sacramento, the Homeless World Cup aims to use the sport of soccer to inspire unhoused people and reshape attitudes towards homelessness.

More than 300 players are competing in the tournament, divided over 40 national teams – 28 men’s teams and 12 women’s teams, hoping to reach the finals on 15 July and getting back into society eventually.

The tournament comes at a time when California is battling a dire homelessness emergency. The state counts more than 171,000 people experiencing homelessness, a third of the homeless population in the US. In 2022, the state reported nearly 10,000 unaccompanied unhoused youth on a single night, the largest number in the country.

California is considered the most unaffordable state in the country, with people earning the minimum wage having to work 90 hours a week to afford a one-bedroom apartment.

We are using the sport in a constructive way to get people off the streetsMel Young of the Homeless World Cup

“This isn’t a California problem, it’s a global problem, and what we need to be doing is not continually talking about the problem, but actually concentrating on what the solution is,” Mel Young, a Homeless World Cup co-founder, said, two decades after he arranged the first tournament in Graz, Austria. “We are using the sport in a constructive way to get people off the streets, so that’s the message we are giving to people in Sacramento and in California.”

“In our collective frustration about homelessness, unsheltered people too often get stripped of their humanity. The World Cup shows a different side,” Sacramento’s mayor, Darrell Steinberg, said in a statement.

Jackson, the US player, became unhoused at the age of 19, she said, when her mother kicked her out of the house after finding out she had been drinking while attending a community college in Sacramento. Jackson dropped out of school and spent weeks searching for a place to live until other young unhoused people told her about Wind Youth Services, an organization and haven for homeless teenagers in need of refuge and basic necessities.

Norway boosters at the Homeless World Cup cheer their team on. Photograph: Anita Milas/Courtesy Homeless World Cup

“Everybody there was either battling an addiction related to drugs or alcohol,” Jackson said, recounting her first days in the shelter. “It was tough seeing other kids high off of heroin, sitting there scratching their bleeding faces.”

Jackson said she had been nervous before the tournament, eager to make a remarkable performance since she knew this would be her only appearance in a World Cup of this sort. The tournament forbids players from competing more than once.

Playing for the US represented a second opportunity, Jackson said, and she didn’t want to disappoint her team and, more important, herself.

Soccer helped Jackson discover a new path amid her struggles with her family, she said.

“It created a safe environment for me to be able to step into and know people that have been through the same thing – maybe worse,” said Jackson. “I could calm down and re-evaluate my life. It just gave me something to look forward to.”

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Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Jackson, still homeless, participated in a program organized by Street Soccer USA. Its managing director, Lisa Wrightsman, told her she was good enough to compete at a World Cup.

Wrightsman, too, has a personal connection to the cup. When she was a senior at Sacramento State, her goal was to become a professional soccer player, but that year, in 2003, the Women’s Soccer League folded after three seasons. Unable to find a purpose, Wrightsman started drinking frequently and was arrested multiple times for driving under the influence, she said. But in 2010, she was invited to the Homeless World Cup in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, an experience that transformed her life, she said.

The tournament allows people to be seen for who they want to be and who they are trying to beLisa Wrightsman of Street Soccer USA

“The tournament allows people to be seen for who they want to be and who they are trying to be,” said Wrightsman, a 42-year old Sacramentan. “It gives them confidence like it did to me. Like maybe you have one foot in, one foot out, but soon both feet will be there and moving forward.”

Sacramento has seen its homelessness emergency grow significantly in recent years. In 2019, the year Jackson arrived at Wind Youth Services, at least 5,570 people were homeless in Sacramento county, according to a report from California State University. By 2022, that number had risen to 9,278, or 59 out of every 10,000 residents.

Last year, voters in the city approved Measure O, which prohibits homeless encampments on public property and requires the city to authorize new shelter spaces.

A progress report from the city in April stated the city had identified 655 shelter spaces, but the homeless population in the county has continued to grow, with the majority of unhoused people living in outdoor tents, vehicles or other locations not suitable to house humans.

A year after leaving the shelter, Jackson now is months away from earning a dental hygiene degree from Carrington College and living in an apartment with her dog, the same one that once accompanied her when she slept in the streets.

Back at the Hornet Stadium, Jackson was congratulated by her teammates and coach because she played a pivotal role in the 3-0 victory over Finland. Although she was out of breath from the intensity of the 15-minute game, Jackson smiled thinking of the goal she scored, which she had dreamed about the night before, she said.

But there was something else on her mind, she added: she was thinking of herself, younger, wandering at night, looking for something to eat, somewhere warm enough to stay.

When asked what she would tell her 19-year-old self, Jackson didn’t hesitate: “Just hang in there girl, don’t give up … Opportunities are always around the corner. Just hang in there.”


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