Playing for Liberty
Street Soccer Philadelphia helps rebuild the lives of the homeless — thanks to several Penn connections
March 17, 2014, 7:08 pm · Updated March 18, 2014, 1:16 am·
Tom Laws has the right name for where he’s coming from and the right personality for where he’s about to go.
He has just gotten off the Market-Frankford line at 8th and Market after an eight-hour day at Penn’s Biddle Law Library, where he works as assistant head of stacks. Now he’s stopping at a Wawa on the way to 9th and Hamilton, but he can’t do so without getting recognized - twice.
“Hey T.C.!” Tom shoots back.
In a Wawa full of diversity on this Tuesday afternoon in October, Tom and T.C.’s embrace near the entrance fits right in. T.C.’s a white, middle-aged bald man with a salt and pepper mustache and soul patch, eyes glowing through black-rimmed glasses. Tom’s a younger black man, having graduated from Monmouth in 2001 with still no signs of gray in his beard or close-cropped dreadlocks.
“How’s the soccer going?” T.C. asks.
“Great, man, it’s going great. Yeah, what are you up to?” Tom replies. T.C. can’t wait to tell him.
“I’m cooking for homeless vets at the vet center,” T.C. smiles back. “And I run 10 miles a day now!”
“Oh wow,” Tom answers in a soft but reassuring voice. “That’s awesome.”
“Tell Chandrima I said hi,” T.C. says walking out. “Come see me at my work!”
T.C.’s been working at the Philadelphia Veterans Multi-Service Center ever since he stopped playing soccer with Tom in the spring. He leaves and Tom instantly spots another former soccer teammate.
Tom and Paul catch up briefly before Tom buys three six-packs of Deer Park bottled water and heads out, carrying them all the way to Our Brothers Place, the men’s homeless shelter that T.C. and Paul used to stay at. He signs in as a visitor at the front desk, and if he notices that the guest list consists almost solely of his signature written over and over again every few days, he doesn’t show it.
On this typical weekday afternoon at OBP, many residents are outside enjoying what’s left of a warm, sunny day, with many smoking and drinking on the five black benches behind the building, gated off from the corner of Buttonwood and North Percy. Crack paraphernalia lies shattered on the sidewalk outside the gate. But although some residents are still inside, plenty of space remains beyond the front desk for surveying. The walls are as colorful as they are littered with aphorisms. One wall features the phrase “The hand of the diligent shall prosper” in white lettering floating across a golden sky.
But across the room next to a Pepsi machine, stacked four rows high on metal racks, are various backpacks, pillows and plump black garbage bags. This is all many OBP residents have. Tom passes by these stacks almost as frequently as the stacks at Biddle, and when he does, it’s usually time to play.
HIGHS AND LOWS
An hour later on a spacious green field a few blocks away, Street Soccer Philadelphia practice is underway. Tom, an assistant coach, stands off to the side as practice is led by head coach John Salvucci. Salvucci co-captained the 2001 Penn men’s soccer team with Evan Anderson, another Street Soccer Philly coach who stands in the background as Salvucci asks a circle of a dozen players and coaches around him to say what they like about Street Soccer.
“I like Street Soccer because it keeps me in shape,” Derrek Wallace says, jutting out his chest underneath a Larry Fitzgerald jersey. “When I first started, I had a little gut. Now I got a six-pack.”
“I love Street Soccer because it takes my mind off a situation I’m being introduced with, and I get to hang around people that I care about and who look out for me too,” 19-year-old Walt Harris, entering his third month with the team says.
“I like Street Soccer because it’s great exercise,” Reef Barclay whispers almost inaudibly. “And having fun ...,” he trails off. All these players are current or former OBP residents, and all are black.
Street Soccer Philly is many things, but above all else, it’s about having fun more meaningful than most people could ever imagine.
Founded by Salvucci and program director Chandrima Chatterjee as the Philadelphia chapter of Street Soccer USA in Oct. 2011, Street Soccer Philly is a nonprofit group dedicated to helping the homeless rebuild their lives through soccer. Philadelphia is one of 16 cities nationwide with a Street Soccer USA program. The chapter normally meets twice a week, and its coaches follow a curriculum using basic soccer concepts to teach players life skills.
The Street Soccer USA curriculum aims to connect its players directly to housing, education and jobs, and 75 percent of Street Soccer players nationwide eventually are connected to jobs and housing, complete a rehabilitation program or further their education within a year of joining the program.
“We provide them what they need the most, which is a community,” Salvucci said. “And in order to build that community, you need to build communication. So what we do is have fun and allow the players to trust each other and trust the coaches.”
But sometimes fun can be hard to come by. Salvucci has the players split up into three teams of three members each. The team that can make the most passes among its members in a minute won’t have to do 10 pushups.
During that minute, another player, Andre Green, gets frustrated and quietly refuses to do pushups as the rest of his teammates do. Instead, he walks away, mumbling under his breath and shaking his head.
It’s starting to get dark, so Salvucci announces that the three teams already formed before will play some good old-fashioned soccer. There are no nets on this giant field, just a pair of orange cones on both ends to kick the ball through. Tom, Salvucci, Chatterjee and her husband Tony Lucente alternate throwing balls into play in a fast-paced string of mini-games.
“Hey, let’s hear some talk! Here’s a new ball!” Salvucci shouts in between throw-ins. “Good talk, Walt! Good talk, Derrek, keep up the talk!”
But Walt’s talk starts to get negative.
“I’m getting pissed!” he squeezes out in between panting. “I really am. Nobody’s f--king trying!”
His rant isn’t very loud and he never stops playing, but Salvucci hears it and enters the game himself for the first time.
“A point of playing this game is about controlling your emotions,” Salvucci calmly says to Walt, who regains self-control and finishes the game.
After almost 10 minutes of constant throw-ins, Salvucci calls it.
“Hey fellas, that’s it, it’s too dark,” he says.
Now it’s time for highs and lows.
“Can I start?” Andre asks. “My high is, I was just about to snap, and I’m glad I didn’t.”
Everyone starts clapping vigorously.
“Yo, let’s hear it for that, honestly,” Salvucci says.
“My low is, I ain’t feeling everybody on this team.”
“I ain’t feeling everybody, either,” Mark Walker, another player, adds.
“First of all, I want to concentrate on what ’Dre said his high was,” Salvucci responds measuredly. “I saw him, and he was pissed and he was frustrated. I saw it. Oftentimes, personally I don’t have the composure to step away, and that’s what ’Dre did.”
“My low is that one of my friends got locked up,” Ellish Danzy says.
“Moved up to the second floor,” Reef says for his high. “Might be getting a job at West Chester University. My low is that the people who were going to help me pay for school rescheduled their appointment.”
A few other players give highs and lows and then Salvucci comes to Walt, who sighs before answering.
“I’m gonna be honest, I’m a real honest person, so I don’t hold my tongue,” Walt says. “When people come at you a certain way, you take that personal and there’s only so much you can take from people.”
“You gotta always try to be bigger than what’s causing the problems, all of us,” Chatterjee replies.
“He’s down on himself for decisions he’s made as a child,” Chatterjee will say months later. “He used to be in school, now he’s not.”
Salvucci gives his high and low after Walt, adding that he’ll bring his wife and kid to practice Sunday.
“You’re an inspiration because I need to hear that from a father’s standpoint,” Derrek responds. “Because I’ve got two little ones, my daughter and my son who are looking forward to me getting myself together. And I consider you all my family, so that’s really important to me.”
EMPIRE STATE OF MIND
Walking back to OBP from practice after guzzling down the Deer Park that Tom lugged over, Derrek and Mark listen to an MP3 of rapper Ca$h Out. But Derrek’s in an Empire State of mind, having gone to New York City in July for the National Cup.
Each chapter of Street Soccer USA is responsible for raising money to bring a team of players who have shown consistent commitment throughout the year both on the soccer field and in their personal goals to the National Cup, whose location rotates annually. Over three days, the teams engage in what Salvucci calls “extremely friendly” competition and a champion is crowned.
It’s not about winning, but playing the right way. Green cards are awarded to players who pick other players up. And Derrek and the rest of his Street Soccer Philly teammates got to play soccer on a 52x72 foot pavement surface right in the middle of Times Square.
“How priceless is that?” Derrek asks, shaking his head. “With all the newspeople and everybody watching us. We were on ESPN. After the games, they treated us nice, took us out to where we wanted to eat and then when we first got there, the college dorms! They let us stay in the college dorms, that was so cool.”
“What [the players] see while they’re at the Cup is really life-changing for them,” Salvucci said. “They realize, first of all, that a lot of other people are in the same situation as them. But they also see what it’s like to have the freedom to move around the city, meet new people, be in a safe environment.
“It’s hard to appreciate just how guarded the players need to be every day of their life when they live in the shelter.”
OBP has two floors, the first for newcomers and those more likely to be liabilities to themselves and others. Good behavior over time gets you living and sleeping on the second floor instead, safely above the misleadingly golden skies below. Every night brings a 9 p.m. curfew and a bed in close quarters with dozens of others.
“New York was awesome,” Derrek says. “I’m still in that moment.”
THE POWER OF SOCCER
According to Project HOME, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization, 12,053 individuals experienced homelessness in Philadelphia in 2012. Just 5,570 of them were engaged in homeless outreach organizations such as OBP. Of those individuals, 70 percent were suffering from both mental health issues and substance abuse challenges. More than 51 percent were black.
Exactly 3.1 miles separate OBP from the Radian, near which Penn students can expect to encounter several beggars on a daily basis. It’s the length of a standard 5k race, and it’s all that’s separating Penn students sprinting to keep up with the breakneck pace of university life and OBP residents presented with the endless marathon of knuckling down and keeping on. These two journeys don’t meaningfully intersect often enough, and they didn’t for Salvucci while he was a Penn student.
“The reality is, I didn’t know any homeless people before I started working for Street Soccer,” Salvucci, a broker for Fortside Insurance, says. “I thought I knew enough. I’d read about it and seen it. What I learned most was that without providing them money, a job or shelter, I can help them simply by doing something I love. By playing soccer.”
Salvucci and Chatterjee both graduated from Penn in 2002 but didn’t meet until just before launching Street Soccer Philly together. Salvucci had previously volunteered for Street Soccer New York for five years and Chatterjee had been volunteering with the Homeless World Cup for almost a year.
When Street Soccer Philly was still in its infancy, Chatterjee would go to OBP and try to get residents to join.
“Now Ellish will go out there and tell people at OBP about it, he’s a natural recruiter and leader,” Chatterjee said. “So I don’t have to do all that anymore.”
Chatterjee still had to foot the bill on her own for Street Soccer Philly in its first two years, though. The team started out playing inside the Old Pine Community Center two winters ago, but the $100 per player costs there added up quickly.
“I can’t keep paying that kind of money out of pocket,” Chatterjee said.
The organization is now relying on $8,000 that it has raised through auctions and raffles, but tournament and transportation costs weigh heavily, especially with the National Cup slated for San Francisco this summer.
“Our goal is to raise money to enter local soccer leagues so that our players have a league in order to hone their skills,” Salvucci said. “But that’s a challenge.”
More challenging still for Chatterjee and other Street Soccer volunteers has been the emotional turmoil that comes with taking care of the team. Chatterjee’s relationship with one former player has taught her a lesson.
“He checked himself out of the shelter multiple times, said he could live on the streets,” she recalls. “But he couldn’t complete a task, couldn’t physically go to job interviews he would get. He was calling me in the middle of night, lost. I brought him back to the shelter, then he checked out again in the middle of winter. Stopped playing and stopped messaging us.”
Ellish, though, has been around since the program started. The team’s best goalkeeper, he doesn’t have an addiction, unlike many Street Soccer Philly players. All he has to do is save up enough money and get out of the shelter.
“For you and me, it sounds so easy,” Chatterjee says. “But for some people it can be a mountain.”
Ellish is trying to re-establish a connection with his son, but in the meantime, he has Street Soccer to stand between the pipes for.
“WHERE YOU GOING?”
Yet at another Street Soccer practice on the day after Thanksgiving, Ellish isn’t defending any goal. He’s standing on an outdoor blacktop basketball court a few blocks from OBP, getting ready to play a pickup 4-on-4 game. Street Soccer doesn’t always involve soccer.
“Please don’t take this away from me,” Walt says before practice starts. “It’s everything to me.”
Tom and Julie Platt, another Street Soccer Philly volunteer, help the players break off into two teams. Khalif, a tall, bald and bearded black man in an orange sweatshirt who has never been at a Street Soccer practice before and no longer lives at OBP, shoots do or die and converts.
Forty-five minutes later, the full-court game is over and everyone walks back towards OBP. The journey back stalls on Buttonwood Street behind OBP. The sky is golden out here too, although darkness is starting to spread.
“If it ain’t all cool and all love like it is here, I guarantee you next time and every time I see you after that, I’m not even gonna speak to you,” Khalif says confidently. “Because it’s either you for me or against me. It’s like if you’re in Africa, do you want to live in the city or do you want to live in the jungle?”
Reef and Walt murmur their approval.
“Am I right? If you live in the jungle, you’re gonna do as the jungle does. I was upstairs [at OBP] before. I got moved upstairs kinda quick because I wasn’t doing what the people in the jungle do. And that’s what they want you to do. I’m not about that. I got a plan to make millions of dollars.”
Khalif proceeds to explain for the next 10 minutes, without interruption, how he plans to get rich off of seminars for resume writing and eBay.
“If you ain’t got no plan, where you going?” he asks Reef and Walt.
“I’m gonna get in here and catch dinner,” Reef says politely, gesturing towards OBP.
Reef did have a plan all along. By the end of January, he was working three 12-9:30 p.m. shifts a week in the kitchen at West Chester University. It was a great comeback for the former teaching assistant, who had been staying at a Mount Airy apartment before getting evicted and taking up at OBP, where he’d been for the past seven months.
Then he got hit by a bus.
Reef was stepping off a city curb when a bus took a wrong turn and hit him, leaving him with a lacerated hand and bruised leg. A week after getting hit, he’s on crutches, navigating a sheet of ice outside of OBP to go out to eat with Tom, Ellish and Andy, a new member of the team who got evicted from his Broad Street apartment after getting laid off while taking classes at the Community College of Philadelphia. The trio waits patiently for Reef as he maneuvers through the subfreezing night.
“The cold done took a lot from us,” Ellish observes after a winter full of practice cancellations due to extreme cold and snowfall. Finally, though, they reach Chef King on 10th and Spring Garden streets and order wings.
“Did you see Floyd Mayweather bet $10 million on the Broncos? That wasn’t smart,” Reef says this Thursday after Super Bowl XLVIII, reclining at a booth. He’s still got the $9 that Tom gave him more than a week before, and pays for his own wings.
“I’m getting tired of working in the kitchen, but I like it there,” Reef says. “There are a lot of females there. And it’s great to be able to work, I really appreciate it.”
And that’s not all.
“He talks now, he’s more confident,” Chatterjee said. “He’s changed so much.”
One constant, though, has been Tom. Nearly every team member counts him as one of their closest friends. It’s routine for him to give SEPTA tokens to players so they can attend doctor’s appointments and job interviews, and he looks forward to inviting players for impromptu practice sessions or a bite to eat.
“Once a team member, always a team member,” Tom says.
PLAYING FOR LIBERTY AT PENN PARK
Penn Park is covered in snow as far as the eye can see, except a little patch on Adams Field in front of the goal nearest Walnut Street. Ellish, Reef, Tom and two new team members are taking shots there, waiting for Chatterjee to arrive after picking up Walt and Mark from Ready, Willing & Able, a transitional work and housing program on 12th and Bainbridge streets for men with addiction histories. Two weeks after his expedition to Chef King and back, Reef isn’t hobbling anymore.
“This is the first year she’s kept the team together over the winter,” Lucente says about his wife. “It’s really Tom’s doing. He’s it, man. He’s the guy.”
And Penn Park is a site for Street Soccer Philly on a weekly basis now that Platt and Chatterjee can set up pickup games there with other local soccer groups and clubs via meetup.com.
“We’ve practiced at some crazy places, so Penn Park is like a dream,” Chatterjee says. “It feels so good to come back.”
Chatterjee arrives with Walt and Mark and makes sure there’s room for the team to play on Dunning-Cohen Champions Field inside the seasonal air structure, the first time the team has ever played there.
Walt and Mark both wear beige T-shirts featuring Street Soccer Philly’s motto, “I Play for Liberty.”
All too soon, it’s time again for practice-ending highs and lows. The highs easily outnumber the lows, full of opportunity and gratitude.
“My high is that it’s great to see all of you guys again, it’s been a while since I’m at RWA now,” Walt says when it’s his turn. “Life is good right now. I’ve been sober two months, off the marijuana for 11 months and I’ve got a significant other in my life right now that’s making me happy, even though she’s a lot older than me.
“I’m a little out of shape now but I’m getting better,” he adds just minutes before the team members will leave the warmth of Dunning-Cohen to meet curfew. “And I’m glad I’m here.”