The Big Issue’s Community Street Soccer Program is held weekly to provide marginalised individuals with the opportunity to play football in a safe, supportive environment.
During the two-hour sessions, players take part in training and a friendly match, facilitated by a dedicated team.
The premise of the initiative, as described by North Melbourne head coach Danilo Guerrero Diaz, is simple.
“It’s about uniting people who are experiencing homelessness or marginalisation by using the language of football – the world game. It’s an opportunity for them to come to us, switch off from their daily life, and leave feeling happier than when they arrived.”
Having been involved with The Big Issue for more than six years, Danilo has seen a number of people come and go.
And throughout his stint, he’s observed first-hand that it takes time for the program to accomplish its overarching goal – helping people
“The outcomes that we’re trying to achieve, the change that we’re hoping to drive, it’s hard to see in the short term. On the day, everyone’s having fun and laughing, and you see results immediately – the smiles, energy and camaraderie.
“But those stories of transformation, they take time. I knew one participant for four years. When he first joined, he was homeless, and his social life was non-existent. Now he’s got a stable home, a full-time job, and he’s coming down to visit me every Wednesday he’s got off work because he’s doing so well.
“These guys can come from any walk of life, but if you commit to them and give them a chance, they can succeed.”
The true reality of homelessness
Homelessness is undoubtedly a crisis in Australia – every night, more than 116,000 people nationwide are without a place to call home.
In addition, our lack of social housing is well documented, with underinvestment over the past two decades leaving Australia well short of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average in the provision of social housing.
In 1991 social housing stock stood at 7.1 per cent of total housing in Australia, and by 2018 this had fallen to 4.2 per cent. This is 2.9 per cent below the latest available OECD average.
Danilo has witnessed just how debilitating homelessness can be – and the importance of stable housing when it comes to generating true progress.
“It’s a terrible situation. It’s like free-falling – everything’s moving, everything’s changing. People are sleeping in different places every night and they don’t know where they’re going to end up in the evening… it’s unstable.”
“When you’ve got a home, it’s a massive step forward. Having that ability to say ‘I’m going home tonight. I know where my soccer boots are. I know where my soccer gear is, and I’ve got a place to leave them at the end. It’s my house, that’s my home’ … that makes a huge difference.
“You’re able to open your eyes and think about what you want to do next week, next month, in a year’s time… it gives you a base to build from.”
What needs to happen
Given the vastness of this issue, there’s no single solution or quick fix that will instigate the change we wish to see in society.
But it’s clear that permanent, sustainable housing is the real game-changer for this experiencing hardship.
“We’ve had people visit us from overseas, and in other countries, they decided that for people who were homeless, they would just give them a house. I often think about that – you place people in a home, and everything else falls in place.
“I’m a humble football coach. That’s what I do. Are things that simple? Of course not. But I know that stable housing is 100% the answer to the problem.”