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Gainesville homeless soccer team has trouble recruiting players

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Posted: Thursday, June 19, 2008 12:00 am

The soccer cleats are new, and the uniforms are clean.

But no homeless people have volunteered to wear them.

Anthony Lyons, manager of the Gainesville Community Redevelopment Agency, has been trying to start a local homeless soccer program since early fall 2007.

However, Lyons is facing a major problem: getting local homeless people to participate.

"I first wanted to take the approach that I needed uniforms, socks, shoes, a place to play and a soccer ball," Lyons said.

"Things of that sort were all things I was able to accomplish, and the last piece was getting the actual players. I actually thought that would be the easiest thing, and it's turned out to be the hardest thing."

Lyons has worked on this project in his spare time without any help from the city.

He said the soccer program is a nontraditional way to get the homeless feeling healthier and more confident.

"It brings people together," he said. "It has people working as a team. It gives them a place to go on a regular basis, and it will allow them to travel around the country or, frankly, around the world."

Lyons has worked on the project with the help of the Homeless World Cup, an annual international soccer tournament featuring more than 60 participating nations.

The tournament was first established in 2003.

A study conducted by the Homeless World Cup found that of the 2006 tournament participants, 35 percent have secured regular employment and 44 percent have improved their housing situations since the competition.

Local homeless man Byron Woods said that Lyons is having trouble getting players because the program is not offering what homeless people really need.

"How I look at it, money needs to be spent on more important things, such as adequate shelter," Woods said.

It would be hard for the homeless to participate in a team sport while they are struggling to find long-term employment and permanent shelter, he said.

Woods said most homeless people can get shelter for a week or two and a temporary job, but when that ends, they wind up back on the street.

He added that these issues are more important than just providing the homeless a sport to play.

"It's like if you're in school," Woods said. "A sport is not a necessity to graduate in school, so other things are more important."

Kent Vann, the executive director of St. Francis House, said organizers of the soccer program need to look for homeless people in permanent programs.

The one offered at St. Francis House for single, homeless working men and women could be a prime target for the team, he said.

"That's basically the way we are in our lives," he said. "Our extracurricular activity comes after we've done our work."

Vann also said the sport would teach the homeless valuable skills, like showing up on time, being part of a team and working hard toward a common goal.

He said it would be a good way to get away from a daily routine and focus on something enjoyable.

Local homeless advocate Pat Fitzpatrick said the program is a brilliant idea.

"It brings them back to something normal," Fitzpatrick said.

Local homeless man Robert Bell said the program would be a big help for the younger homeless population.

The soccer program could help people get off the streets and become more physically fit, Bell said.

"Most people in the streets just aren't really healthy," he said. "If you started getting them into physical activities, it could be good."

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