Finding courage. Learning you have a brain. Going home.
Oz isn’t the only place that kind of wizardry happens, Gina Sykes-Purdiman, 21, discovered. Sometimes it’s on a rubber soccer pitch, like the one set up this weekend at the Embarcadero’s Embarcadero Plaza.
It wasn’t ruby slippers, but a royal blue soccer jersey and shorts that Sykes-Purdiman credits with bringing her home after three years on the streets. She plays right wing with Street Soccer San Francisco, a team of homeless and formerly homeless people that is part of the national Street Soccer USA, a nonprofit that helps down-and-out people learn life skills through sports.
On Saturday, the league held its first West Coast tournament at Embarcadero Plaza, just blocks from the wooden overhang at Fisherman’s Wharf where she was living last year.
But it’s now a world away for Sykes-Purdiman, who was among about 80 players from Seattle, Portland, Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Francisco competing for the trophy and a chance to make the national team on a small soccer field set up in the sun across from the Ferry Building.
“Soccer taught me how to pace myself and control my anger,” said Sykes-Purdiman, who found a single-room occupancy hotel with the help of the city’s homeless services. “It took me a while to get adjusted to socializing.”
Like many of the players, Sykes-Purdiman started life at a disadvantage. After years in a group home, she was on the street at 19, no longer eligible for care but with nowhere to go. Through her case worker, she eventually met Antoine Lagarde, the team’s coach, who brought her in.
The soccer team “gives them a support group, a structure and discipline – and the inspiration to get off the street,” Lagarde said, as he raced off to organize the teams, each in colorful team jerseys, for the opening parade through Embarcadero Plaza to the field.
Wearing a lime jersey for the Sacramento Mohawks, 46-year-old Dalbert Shaw said he’d been a meth addict for 32 years. He credits street soccer for his three years of sobriety.
“I’d probably still be using without it,” Shaw said. “This allows me to be committed to a team and be responsible. Before, I was only committed to my addiction.”
The Mohawks’ assistant coach, Robert Stanley, understands that. After dropping out of school in the ninth grade, he became homeless, addicted to drugs, and was in and out of county jail.
Has a new son
Today he’s sober and has been waiting tables for nearly two years. He is studying psychology at Folsom Lake College, and just had a healthy baby son.
“The skills I’ve learned through soccer – each player goes through a 12-week curriculum that teaches you essential job and life skills – make me a role model for my child,” Stanley said. “It’s a good life.”
Story after story among the players seem to affirm that the skills on the playing field translate to skills in the world.
Jaydee Perez Lockwood, 25, thinks so. Born to an alcoholic meth addict, Perez Lockwood spent her life in five foster homes. Like anyone dealt a hand like that, she was angry and unskilled at handling her emotions. She began drinking and taking pills at 16.
“Now I just focus my anger on the ball,” she said. “I don’t pop pills since I started playing soccer, and I control my drinking.”
She’s now enrolled at City College of San Francisco and expects to transfer to a university and study photography and coaching. She wants to start a Street Soccer team.
For now, though, her goal was more short-term: Beat the Mohawks.
At precisely noon, the teams squared off in the arena, playing on rubber mats rather than grass. Each game lasted just 14 minutes, with just four team members on the field at one time, frequently trading off.
Sykes-Purdiman was in the first round, the only woman on the field. A Mohawk intercepted her kick and booted the ball toward the goal. As Queen’s “We Will Rock You” blared from the speakers, Sacramento scored its first goal.
She traded places with another player, and San Francisco pulled ahead. The halftime score was 3-2. “Whoo! Whoo!” Sykes-Purdiman cried, hugging Perez Lockwood.
“They don’t look homeless,” said a passerby, Jim Fotenos, a lawyer on his way to work.
They didn’t. And though Street Soccer San Francisco lost, 7-6, it was clear that everyone playing the game had won.
To find out more about Street Soccer’s work with the homeless, visit streetsoccerusa.org