Monday, March 30, 2009

Chicago Inferno

Playing soccer is a lifeline for the homeless
Homeless men find renewed purpose, camaraderie among soccer teammates

March 27, 2009

By MARISSA AMONI For The Beacon News
Soccer is no game to John Klicpera. It is the 24-year-old homeless man's lifeline.

"It keeps me away from a lot of other negative things," he said.

A member of the Hesed House Infernos soccer team shakes off a missed goal during the team's last game of the season.

Klicpera abused drugs in his teenage years and eventually landed in prison. He did his time, went through drug treatment in Rockford and then returned to Aurora, a city that feels like an "old playground" to him.

So when the opportunity arose to join a newly formed homeless soccer team, Klicpera joined in part to keep out of harm's way.

He had never played soccer before. But Klicpera was in good company because neither had the coach.

"I've never touched a soccer ball in my life," said Jason Holmes, who started the team last fall after being inspired by a late night of TV watching.

Holmes, 32, of Aurora, said that after seeing "Kicking It," a documentary film that chronicles players in the 2006 Homeless World Cup in South Africa, he immediately began researching the local street soccer scene. He e-mailed Lawrence Cann, president and founder of Street Soccer USA, and found out that no homeless soccer teams existed in the Chicago area.

With Cann's long-distance support, Holmes took a self-guided crash course in the sport through library books and soon posted recruitment fliers throughout the Hesed House homeless shelter in Aurora, where he works as a program director.

The fliers drew a meager response, so Holmes grabbed a ball one day in October and staged a game across the street.

"Guys just came over to play," Holmes said.

Word of the team quickly spread. At the first official practice for team Inferno, more than a dozen came to play. The team since has an open-door policy and has had as many as 25 players on its roster at one time. Holmes said the "biggest indicator" of success is the number of people who continue to play.

Since its inception, the team has been a refuge for the players -- homeless men who sometimes must angle for a bed to sleep on at night.

"You've got to become a survivor," Klicpera said. "I'm 24; I don't believe I should be where I am. (Homelessness) is really hard -- the people, the times, going from here to there. ... (Soccer) is positive. It is something to look forward to."
In the past year, Juan Venecia went from using crack to being the Infernos' team manager. The 52-year-old deserted his home in Texas to escape a life that wasn't doing him any favors. "It was time for me to go," he said.

Venecia said the homeless shelter has been "rehab" for him. Soccer helps keep him in shape and keep his routine going, so days don't blend together.

Some of the men say the team has changed them for the better.

"(Soccer) brought (the guys) more together. We never talked to each other before," Klicpera said. "Soccer makes (each of) us a better person."

Looking for success

"I need to dig myself out of the hole I'm in and try to get on level ground," said Jeremy Sebek, 24, a team member who came to Aurora from Sandwich after he was kicked out of his mom's house..

The sentiment was shared among the players -- homelessness is temporary. Almost half of the players are living in homes now.

"Hopefully none of these guys will be homeless in July," Holmes said.

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