changing lives through sport

From the Streets to the Homeless World Cup: How Football Is Changing Lives

Harold Smoke practices once a week with the Kelowna Kodiaks, a British Columbia football team made up of homeless players. It has turned his life around and taken him to the Homeless World Cup in Amsterdam.

Tyler Harper

Tyler Harper

Photo by Tyler Harper

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada

Harold Smoke arrived ready to play. He probably could have skipped practice and no one would have blamed him. Forest fires south of the border had choked the British Columbia interior with a thick smoke that hid the mountains and coloured the sun a rusty orange. It wasn't an ideal time for cardio but Smoke still showed up. It was the most important hour of his week, forest fires be damned.

Smoke jogged onto the field. The Kelowna Kodiaks were missing a few players so they decided on a half-field scrimmage. They played hard. Goals and good defence were met with high fives. No insults, no negativity. They laughed a lot but rarely stopped running. When it was over, some had homes to go to. But most didn't.

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Smoke and the rest of the Kodiaks live on the streets, and meet once a week to practice. They rely on donated equipment and a slim budget provided by Inn From The Cold. Once a year, one player from the Kodiaks has a chance to play for Canada at the Homeless World Cup.

This year, that player is Smoke.

"It's just alien to me, really," he says. "To think I can kick a ball and it's going to take me across the world. Don't happen to people like me, man."

***

The Homeless World Cup, an annual tournament that runs Sept. 12-19 this year in Amsterdam, began in 2003 as friendly competition meant to inspire and help the homeless. Forty-eight teams are competing on the men's side with 16 women's squads participating, although women can also join the men's teams. The Canadian roster is made up of seven players chosen from 16 teams across the country by Street Soccer Canada.

The trip was Smoke's first to Europe. It also marked only the second time he's ever flown—the first was in July when the Kodiaks went to Hamilton, Ontario, for the National Street Soccer Championship. He still has difficulty comprehending what's happening to him. It wasn't that long ago he was a different person living a much harder life.

Smoke, 42, is thin, wears his hair in a ponytail and has heavy eyes. A few unfinished jail tattoos are scrawled across his left arm and he's missing some teeth. When he laughs, accepts a compliment or talks about himself, he looks away as though he's either embarrassed or confounded by his good fortune. His smile feels earned.

Harold Smoke went to Europe for the first time. And will return home to a job. Playing football has literally transformed his life. —Photo by Tyler Harper

He was born in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, and grew up in the nearby Dakota Tipi First Nation reserve. Smoke first ran away from home at the age of 13, went in and out of group homes and was jailed several times on assault, theft and break-and-enter charges. He has a daughter in Manitoba who goes to university, although he chokes up when she's mentioned. "That one's a little tough to talk about," he says.

Smoke, currently living in subsidized housing and out of work, became addicted to crack during a five-month stay in Edmonton, Alberta, he calls the worst time of his life. Desperate to break a daily routine of waking up in alleys and searching for his next hit, Smoke moved to Kelowna, B.C., in early 2010. He went in and out of rehab while living on the streets for nearly four years until he was approached by Tom Maxwell in a local shelter. Maxwell asked if he'd be interested in playing football, and Smoke accepted. "I just had to change my life," says Smoke. "It was going down. If it weren't for Tom and them, I'd probably still be out there, or in jail or worse."

***

Maxwell, a 31-year-old Aussie, describes himself as a poor football player. He grew up idolizing the national team and watching the English Premier League. He first had the idea of putting together a team of homeless players after reading "GOAL! The story of the Homeless World Cup" by tournament co-founder Mel Young, but it wasn't until he moved to Kelowna in June 2010 that Maxwell acted on the idea.

But Maxwell's plan nearly died without ever stepping onto the pitch. His first step, a meeting with managers of local shelters, didn't go well. "A few of them literally laughed at me," says Maxwell. "Like, what are you doing? They just didn't think it would work at all." Still, Maxwell found encouragement from Inn From The Cold and Street Soccer Canada, and looked for anyone interested in playing. The Kodiaks held their first practice in September 2010. Five people showed up, but only one returned the following week. For the next three weeks, Maxwell and his wife Tiffany found themselves alone with just one player.

They decided to wait an extra 10 minutes. If no one showed up, they'd scrap the idea.

"No shit, just as we were like, 'OK that's it' like six, seven people started walking across the field," says Maxwell. "Like from all different directions. 'Hey is this street soccer?' And we were like, 'Holy crap, this will actually work.' And from that point on it was like, OK, this is actually working now."

The Kodiaks generally consist of around 10 players. Sometimes they work on drills, although usually they just scrimmage. Maxwell, who also does work at an Inn From The Cold shelter, has no ulterior motives. He doesn't try to talk to his players about life off the field. His team is only about the game. When they play other teams, the Kodiaks don't advertise being homeless. They don't want the sympathy. On the pitch they are football players. That's all that matters.

When people show up it takes time for the Kodiaks to earn their trust. James Tarrant, who has been with the Kodiaks since the beginning, recalls telling the Maxwells to fuck off when they approached him. "I didn't believe we were playing soccer," says Tarrant. When asked what he thought it was going to be about, Tiffany Maxwell answers for him: "More people telling you what to do."

Tiffany Maxwell and James Tarrant enjoying themselves on the football field. —Photo by Tyler Harper

Tarrant came around. He shares a laugh with Maxwell when they remember how he used to wear a trench coat and boots (Tarrant describes himself as a violent person during this time). He used to cough after running 10 yards. "I've learned to breath through a lot of things. It's helped my mental health," he says.

Smoke's story echoes Tarrant's. Before he started playing football he says he was angry with society and upset with the judicial system. But he also knew he was getting older, that he needed to finally make some positive changes. The change was made harder by his determination to get clean.

"Especially coming off of drugs, your mind starts working differently," says Smoke, who has been sober for two years. "You don't know how to handle it. I had no idea how to handle it. I was lashing out at everybody. I started getting my aggression out in football. I started playing harder. I started practising more. Now I have a much better outlook on life. Where I want to be, where I want to go, if anything who I want to take there with me, stuff like that."

***

Tom Maxwell is realistic about where homeless organizations need to allocate their resources (during the interview he jokes about not being able to find a ball pump needle for Smoke), but he sighs when asked about people who criticize using sports to help the homeless. "We get this all the time," he says. "Why are you wasting time playing soccer? Well, the normal ways of dealing with (the) homeless hasn't worked so far, so why not?"

Maxwell has travelled with the Canadian team to the Homeless World Cup twice. There's no financial incentive to winning, but he's seen what it does for his players. "It's amazing. It's eye-opening, it's humbling," he says. "It's very friendly. The atmosphere is unbelievable. You get there and a week later you come back to like a million Facebook friend requests from people all over the world. Your Facebook feed just turns into Spanish and Portuguese, French and all, it's quite funny."

Tarrant has a slightly different take. He was part of Canada's roster at last year's World Cup in Santiago, Chile, and remembers it as a grind— fast-paced games and little time to breathe. Four players, including the goalie, are on the small pitch surrounded by boards to allow for continuous play. Three players can attack, but only two can return to their side to defend. The format in theory helps even the playing field, although football-mad nations such as Brazil and Chile tend to dominate, anyway.

Tarrant leans over to Smoke at the Kodiaks' practice and reiterates the point. "You will feel nothing but pain, you will want to lay down," he says to laughter. "I'm serious. Do not see it as a vacation. People walk up to you, you will have your experience, I understand that. My experience, it was work. You have to stay organized. You're in a different country, language is a barrier."

It was still a positive experience for Tarrant. He says it gave him confidence and helped improve his health. It's trite to say, but nationalism also played its part. Tarrant recalls the pride he felt wearing the Maple Leaf while the anthem played. He also acknowledges representing Canada could devastate a homeless person who returns unprepared for life back on the streets. "You come home and you've gotta shower, you've gotta make your food. I'm marginalized, I'm on welfare and you've gotta figure out where you're getting your cigarettes, you know? Restart life again."

Results at the Homeless World Cup don't matter so much to Street Soccer Canada. Players aren't picked by skill. Anyone who puts in the effort and will benefit from the experience is considered. Maxwell would nominate his whole team for spots if he could, but Smoke shows up every week. "It doesn't hurt that he's pretty damn good at football, too," says Maxwell.

Football has given members of the Kodiaks something to smile about. —Photo by Tyler Harper

Smoke exercised every morning to prepare for the tournament, and got in practice time with friends whenever he wasn't with the Kodiaks. He also took Tarrant's warning about the return home to heart. He fell into a depression after the tournament in Hamilton, and worked with Maxwell on setting goals for the future. Smoke is a football fan—he follows Barcelona and says Lionel Messi is his favourite player—but the game is also secondary to him in a way.

"I want to do the experience," says Smoke. "That's what's so exciting. I never thought I'd be going to Europe, for one thing. I've always said growing up if I'm ever going to leave the country and go somewhere foreign, I'm going to Amsterdam. And lo and behold, I'm going to Amsterdam."

Smoke arrived to the Kodiaks' practice with some good news: When he returns to Canada he'll have a full-time job as a roofer. He plans to stick with it until he can find a job as a cook, which he enjoys doing. Just going to the Homeless World Cup won't fix all his problems, but Smoke thinks it's a good start.

"It's unbelievable," he says, "how fast things can really change."