photos: Shamsi Kabiru is ready to go at a Tuesday morning practice with the Vancouver Street Soccer League. Photo: Kayla Isomura

Street soccer offers fresh kicks

Vancouver Street Soccer League launches beginners’ program

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There is no soccer field at 119 East Cordova Street.

There is, however, a pitch. And Dennis Munroe is making it.

Leaning against the outside wall of Harbour Light Centre’s detox unit, Neil listens to Munroe politely, lightly balancing his smoldering cigarette between his index and middle fingers.

“It’s fun,” Munroe says. “Great people. You’ll recognize the guys when you come over.”

Munroe, a player, coach and board member with the Vancouver Street Soccer League (VSSL), is on a recruiting run. It’s one of two fledgling VSSL initiatives aimed at scouting and retaining fresh faces for a league that has firmly embedded itself in both Vancouver’s sporting and street communities over the past eight years.

Turns out, Neil played indoor soccer two years ago.

Munroe catches the easy prompt: that’s perfect, he tells Neil—he’ll fit right in. There’s a free lunch after each session, too. Munroe scribbles down the times and locations of the weekly practices on a VSSL business card.

“Rain or shine, we’re always here,” he promises, handing it over.

New recruits
Last year, the VSSL turned a Lush cosmetics grant into a dual-pronged, as-yet-unnamed “beginners’ program” and tasked Munroe with managing it. The recruitment runs were paired with new Tuesday morning novice-level practices, offered as a low-intensity alternative to the more competitive play of the league’s standard sessions.

“There was a lot of intimidation for the new players coming out,” he recalls, which discouraged potential recruits. VSSL teams consistently participate in tournaments, including the Homeless World Cup, and Munroe estimates the league now boasts 80 to 100 increasingly skilled members, with about 30 regular players.

But everyone, homeless or otherwise, is welcome to play or watch, Munroe emphasizes. One year into the beginners’ program and he is optimistic of growing interest and participation. With the league’s lasting presence and Vancouver’s closely interconnected street community, he senses that people are developing a general familiarity with it.

“Mostly, they’ll see the pack of us walking from the Carnegie [Community Centre] to the 44 [the Evelyne Saller Centre] to get lunch, laughing and carrying on,” he observes. “I’ve never had a bad response.”

Munroe remembers when he was approached by a University of British Columbia student approached him to play with the VSSL. After his job working on the Sea to Sky Highway ended in 2010, he spent approximately two years drawing from his savings to look after his cancer-stricken mother.

He eventually lost both his parents to the disease within six months of each other. Broke and emotionally exhausted, Munroe wound up sitting on a mat at the Aboriginal Shelter.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the student’s pitch didn’t sound particularly interesting to Munroe at the time.

Then the student mentioned lunch.

“A free lunch?” Munroe laughs, recalling the moment. “I’ll go for that.”

Having now assumed the role of recruiter, Munroe admits that selling people on the VSSL can be challenging— he estimates that only 25 per cent of those who express interest actually show up. He has noticed that some street youth seem to view the VSSL as a reminder of them being homeless, and with it all the associated stigmas.

“A lot of [others] can’t see themselves doing something athletic,” he adds, making the sobering point that some individuals he comes across are not in a state of mind where they could even comprehend him, much less play soccer.

Then there’s the issue of trust. Reflecting on his attempts to make inroads with the street community, Munroe often mentions Rik Mountain, a VSSL player who also recruits for the league. Mountain was Munroe’s first choice to help him launch the program. He says Mountain’s standing in the community, and resulting instant rapport with many of its population, has been invaluable.

“Rik has that street connection with everybody—it’s amazing,” he says. “[He] came from the hardest part of the Downtown Eastside.”

Mountain, however, isn’t on this particular outing. Tonight, Munroe and fellow VSSL board member Paul Hollohan make their way toward First United Church shelter.

“This is a rough place ... it’s hard to pull guys from here,” Munroe says, rounding the corner of Hastings and Main. “But we have to try.”

The Mountain
Three days later, on the second floor of the Carnegie, Mountain watches the beginners’ practice. He starts talking about poverty, and his tone shifts. Mountain’s languid delivery becomes more forceful, his language more direct. Every so often a soccer ball thunders off the gymnasium walls, punctuating his words.

“I see how people struggle. Not many people help them. You don’t see on the news how people are struggling down here— all you see are bad people. You don’t see the good in them.”

Mountain watches his son James and his girlfriend’s daughter Jessica, both six and on spring break from school, scamper among Hollohan and other VSSL players. James’ fervent effort frequently sends him tumbling to the floor, while Jessica’s zeal to kick the ball routinely lifts her off the ground. Hollohan, with five years of experience playing with the VSSL and two years with the Kelowna Street Soccer League, punts a shot at the goal—a masking tape outline—that smacks the wall at least five feet over its intended target.

“That’s why I’m a goalkeeper,” he grins.

Mountain, taking a breather on the sideline, has been a committed VSSL player for the past seven years. He has also taken on a mentoring role at the VSSL, which has its challenges.

The healthier lifestyle philosophy to which Mountain now subscribes isn’t always received well by some in the community.

“They’ve been hurt more than I have; they’ve been abused more than I have ... [they’re] just numbing their brains with alcohol and drugs.”

But things change when they get involved with the VSSL, Mountain says.

“They’re not thinking about where they’re going to get their next fix, or their next drink. It’s like being a kid again. Enjoy yourself … have fun.”

Indeed, the practice has a distinctly casual, recreational feel to it. After about 45 minutes of soccer, the players start heaving half-court basketball shots. Some, spectacularly, go in—most don’t. Meanwhile, the kids busy themselves, building makeshift tents with the gym’s athletic mats.

“People [on the street] may be drunk or high or whatever, but they come up to me and say ‘I really like what you’re doing,’” Mountain recounts. “It’s a good thing.”

The program’s participants are well-supported: gymnasium space is donated by the Carnegie and the homeless players are given Vancouver Whitecaps jerseys and shorts, provided gratis from the Major League Soccer franchise. Mountain, Hollohan and four others were also hired through VSSL connections to the Whitecaps operational crew, charged with setting up and taking down the soccer setup at BC Place.

“It’s a good gig,” Mountain acknowledges. “They support us. They appreciate what we’re doing for the community.”

Exercising hope
Like Munroe, Mountain was recruited from a shelter.

In 2009, Mountain was playing Hacky Sack outside the Stanley/New Fountain Hotel in Blood Alley when a Portland Hotel Society staff member asked if he wanted to join the VSSL. He was instinctively apprehensive. After a lifetime of asking for help and receiving little, Mountain explains, it’s hard for the street population to trust people.

“You don’t even know me. Why would you go out of your way to ask me to play ball and offer to feed me after that? What’s the catch?”

Despite his reservations, Mountain agreed. He would soon find himself quitting crystal meth and alcohol, largely because of his son, but in no small part due to his new active lifestyle. His sobriety continues to this day and he now lives in North Vancouver, off the street. Hollohan, Munroe and other VSSL players share similar success stories.

One of them is 23-year-old Shamsi Kabiru, who went from staying at Covenant House Vancouver youth shelter approximately four years ago to finding a rental apartment through VSSL. After his school expelled him, Kabiru worked a series of jobs, the last three for which he was never paid. Kabiru—who spent eight years playing in the Total Soccer Systems Academy—soon found himself homeless.

“I don’t know where I’d be if it weren’t for this organization,” Kabiru remarks.

He remembers being approached by VSSL while smoking weed with his friends—he guesses he’d still be doing that, directionless and drifting. Now, however, Kabiru sees definite potential in committing to the league.

“I know that if I choose to stick with this organization and commit my time, I have a future here,” he says. “These guys found me and we’ve been family ever since.”

Kabiru is able to list off a host of other benefits of the program, including free Whitecaps tickets, travel opportunities, soccer gear and, of course, the free lunches.

“That’s a big draw, bro,” he nods, knowingly. “It’s always good to know that you won’t leave hungry.”

The essence of VSSL, though, Kabiru sums up in poignantly simple terms: “It’s a little bit of exercise, and some hope.”

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