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By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 30, 2008

At 56 years old and living in a D.C. homeless shelter, Maurice King was not the most likely candidate to be running around on a hard court under yesterday's brutal sun, chasing after a soccer ball.

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But neither were the six other players on the D.C. team, nor the more than 100 other competitors from 10 other cities at this past weekend's Homeless USA Cup 2008.

"It gives us a voice and a chance to connect, be seen, be heard and be known as more than just homeless people," said Michael Jones, 21, one of King's teammates who has been homeless off and on since he was 11.

King, who since 2003 has lived at the Community for Creative Non-Violence near the Capitol, agreed. "For me, it is a positive social interaction. I hadn't played this game in 39 years when I started. It was quite a challenge to me to get back into it, but it's been fun."

The tournament was the brainchild of 30-year-old Lawrence Cann of Charlotte. Combining a love of soccer -- he played for Davidson College on scholarship -- with his work at a Charlotte homeless shelter, he founded the nonprofit Street Soccer USA based on a program flourishing in other countries. Cann raised funds, and teams sprouted in different cities.

The game is street soccer, played on a 72-by-52-foot court with four members on each side, including the goalie. It is fast and free-flowing, the kind of soccer ordinarily played in pickup games around the world, said David M. Tyahla, director of government relations for the nonprofit U.S. Soccer Foundation. Tyahla was a referee for yesterday's matches, held in the parking lot of the old D.C. Convention Center in Northwest Washington.

The theory, Cann said, is that although homeless people need to focus on their pressing daily needs, it is also important for them to set and meet longer-term goals. Doing this within the context of sports has other dimensions, including better health and team cooperation.

"They have what I call the homeless timeline of one day. We understood that. We also understood that if we had a tournament or a game to look forward to a week ahead, a month ahead, that it might motivate them to change their behavior," Cann said.

Cann, other advocates and participants say that the approach works and that most players find new motivation for living. They also say it is increasingly important to understand how to help the homeless at a time when their numbers are growing.

The most recent U.S. government figures show that there are 744,000 homeless people living on the street or in shelters across the country any given night. Michael Stoops, acting executive director of the D.C.-based nonprofit National Coalition for the Homeless, said that over the course of a year 3.5 million Americans experience homelessness. It is estimated that there are 12,000 homeless people in the District, he said.

"We're in a growth industry," he said.

Stoops said he had initial doubts about the soccer tournament. "I thought that this was a crazy idea, and that we should be working on ending homelessness and not sponsoring sports leagues for the homeless."


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