When was the last time that you gave money to a homeless person on the street? I'll be honest - I don't think I ever have. Nor do I feel especially bad about it.
This is not to say that I don't pity the situation that these people find themselves in but homelessness is one of the rare walks of life where I think paternalism is not only beneficial but necessary. I would much rather give my money to a charity for the homeless and see some of my donation disappear into the black-hole that is bureaucracy than see the whole lot disappear into the till at the local offy.
A few weeks ago, I stumbled across one such charity - the Homeless World Cup. A few of you may have heard or read about it - most likely due to the fact that the media has previously told us that Bébé had played in it. Indeed Bébé was homeless, and football did change his life for the better, but, as you could probably tell from what we briefly saw of him in a United shirt, the lad wasn't actually good enough to even make the team that represented Portugal in the international tournament that takes place every year. I'm not even joking. Good one, Sir Alex.
Founded in 2001, the Homeless World Cup has grown year on year. The first version of the event took place in Graz, Austria; 18 teams were involved. This August, 64 squads will travel to Poznan, Poland to take part in the 11th edition of the tournament.
Though the event is a life-changing experience for its participants, the Homeless World Cup is so much more than just this annual spectacle. The organisation has 70 national partners in countries around the world who work throughout the year to provide the kind of access to services that homeless people need to get their feet back on the ground and to hit it running. In 2012 alone, over 100,000 people were aided by the program.
Sitting in front of your laptop/tablet/phone/other-needless-handheld-device reading this, it's probably quite hard to imagine what it would be like to live without a bank account, a family or a roof over your head at night. It might not seem immediately obvious how football can provide the kind of help that these people, who live in such desperate isolation, urgently and regularly need. It certainly wasn't to me.
As you can imagine, I couldn't believe my luck when the President and Co-founder of the organisation, Mel Young, agreed to let me pick his brains about the whole thing. An extremely well-regarded social entrepreneur Mel was also one of the people behind the Big Issue which you'll have no doubt seen being sold on your local high street (unless, like me, your local high street consists solely of antique shops and tea-rooms).
The key is that as Mel told me, 'football is a common language, even if ya don't like it, ya get it.' Getting involved in football and participating in group activity allows the homeless to communicate with others and build relationships. They become team mates. There's trust; sharing; responsibility and most of all, they are part of something. Despite what you might think from following the professionals who play the game, these skills are transferable to everyday life and the boost of being included again gives the homeless a renewed energy to fight and to change themselves for the better.
The success rate is high too. Detailed surveys of players before and after the annual tournament show that for over 70% of those who participate, their lives were substantially different. They'd got jobs, re-connected with family members or even married people that they'd met along the way. Though this figure, strictly speaking, only applies to those selected for their national sides, the treatment the players receive is not that different. The effect that the national branches of the Homeless World Cup have is also overwhelmingly positive. Moreover, the success of the annual event shows that it works across the globe.
Homelessness really is an issue that crosses borders. There are over a 100 million people without a home worldwide. Every single nation is affected. I asked Mel how the Homeless World Cup copes with adapting to the inherent difficulties a global organisation faces in dealing with a diverse world.
"Great question (cue smug look from a first time interviewer). You're right, homelessness isn't linear across the world - it manifests itself differently and therefore the solutions aren't uniform. In Western Europe, the issue is exclusion. If you can create pathways for the homeless and make them more visible you can create routes to employment and even housing. That's the mechanism. In Africa, you can go through that process but there are just no jobs. So the emphasis is on creating social enterprises or self-employed schemes."
"Are there differences in how you are received country to country as well?"
'It's really interesting actually; we've got a lot higher profile outside of the UK. In some countries I meet the President, in others they ask who you are and what you are doing here. In some countries you get help from the public and private sector as well as the people, in others, you get nothing. Sometimes, we can be the difference between the two. People one day just won't get it but then they see these guys playing football and there's a change."
"In some countries though, they still don't want to even admit that there is any homelessness. These places are the biggest challenge. My view is that countries drastically need to change their attitude. It's not a criticism of a country now that they have homelessness, there's no need to be ashamed - they need to be doing something about it."
It's not just the direct help that's important though. It's very easy for homeless people to fall by the wayside, to be forgotten and to become a mere statistic.
"Homeless people can become invisible and what we try to do is make them visible again."
It's not just that they're invisible though. It's that they're misconceived. Partly due to the trap I lay at the beginning of the article but not entirely, I'd wager that the image you had/have of a homeless person is as a 'beggar under a blanket with no desire to change'. Mel's aim is to shatter this fallacy.
Not all homeless people sit on street corners and ask for your money. The situation they're in is often not their fault. They're ordinary people like you and I. They breathe the same air we do. They speak the same language (sometimes). They even like football. Changing the world's perspective of homeless people is fundamental to the success of the project and it's up to us to spread that change.
My last question to Mel was about the future of the endeavour.
"We just need to do more. We've found a solution and it's spreading. It's just about replicating what we've been doing but in different cities across the world."
"It's about making our impact even better. If it was just an annual event that came and went year on year and the guys involved went back to the way they were, we wouldn't do it - we want to create a lasting impact on these people's lives."
Mel Young is an inspiration. When you share your first name with the man who so convincingly acted the part of Braveheart, you're expected to be a hero but Mel surpasses all expectation. The work he does and the effect he has on people's lives is miraculous and he does it, not because he's sanctimonious, but because he genuinely cares. He genuinely wants to make a difference. The fact that someone so busy would take time out of their day to talk to an inexperienced, wannabe journalist just because I showed an interest is a testament to his devotion.
More than anything, it's heart-warming to see that despite all the complete assholes in the world of football, there are some out there who use the beautiful game to do good. I urge you to go and look up the work Mel and his team do and if you can, get involved. There's a brilliant documentary about it called Kicking It which I really recommend if you've got a free hour or two (it's linked it below). Moreover, if for some reason you are in Poznan during August, go to the event itself. As Mel assured me, "it will change your life, as well as theirs".