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Sac State welcomes Homeless World Cup tournament – and a chance to seek solutions

Homeless World Cup volunteer Jonathan Brickner, right, setting up one of the soccer goals for the event, said he hopes it will help people "gain empathy for people who are homeless." (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

Since she was a toddler, Sienna Jackson had kicked a soccer ball. When she became homeless, she lost the game she loved. Family conflict when she was a teenager pushed Jackson from her home, and she ended up sleeping on acquaintances’ couches and, for a time, in parks.

“At that time, it was all about survival,” she said. “It was, ‘Where will I sleep tonight? Where will I get my next meal?’ ”

Soccer, which Jackson played competitively for years, became an afterthought.

Then, while receiving services from Sacramento’s Wind Youth Center about three years ago, she found street soccer, whose participants know the fears and uncertainties of being without a stable place to live. She rediscovered the game and began putting her life back together.

Jackson and hundreds of others from around the globe, most of whom have experienced homelessness or housing insecurity, will compete on an international stage during the Homeless World Cup (HWC). The event will be hosted by Sac State and held at Hornet Stadium July 8-15.

The tournament, first played in 2003 in Graz, Austria, is the Homeless World Cup Foundation’s landmark street soccer event. The foundation is an umbrella organization for a network of charities that conduct year-round street soccer programs for men, women, and children experiencing homelessness.

The event was canceled in 2020, 2021, and 2022 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Cities that have hosted previous HWC tournaments include Paris, Mexico City, Copenhagen, Oslo, and Rio De Janeiro, among others. More than 500 athletes from 50 countries will participate. Sacramento is the first U.S. city in which the HWC will be played, and Sac State is the first university anywhere to host the event.

The tournament is free and open to the public. Food and beverages will be available for purchase.

Sponsors hope the event will help people connect with those who have experienced homelessness and see the issue in a different light.

“The Homeless World Cup is meant to inspire global change,” said Sac State President Robert S. Nelsen, who will retire later this month. “I am incredibly proud that it will be my final event as Sac State’s president.”

The event, which organizers describe as “a sports tournament with a purpose,” brings together grassroots organizations that help homeless people find community and improve their lives through soccer. Locally, former Sac State soccer players Lisa Wrightsman and Tiffany Fraser manage Sacramento’s chapter of Street Soccer USA.

A woman and her dog in the gym.
Sienna Jackson, shown in the gym with her dog April, discovered street soccer while experiencing homelessness and receiving services from Sacramento’s Wind Youth Center. She will play in the 2023 Homeless World Cup at Sacramento State July 8-15. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

By participating in the HWC, athletes get the satisfaction of representing their nations while building friendships and camaraderie with teammates and opposing players, said Wrightsman, who credits street soccer with helping to lift her from addiction and instability. Many street soccer teams help players find housing and other support.

Event volunteer Jonathan Brickner said he hopes the tournament will help people understand and gain empathy for people who are homeless.

“This is not just about a tent on the sidewalk,” he said. “I hope people will come away with a whole different view about homelessness.”

Jackson said Street Soccer USA, along with the Wind Youth Center, helped orient her toward a better life. She now is working, studying to become a dental assistant, and living in an apartment with her dog April.

“They helped give me the resources and tools that I needed to move forward,” she said. “I learned the basic life skills that I never got when I was growing up.”

Juan Lona has never been homeless, he said, but his immigrant parents struggled to make ends meet. Seven years ago, he discovered street soccer. He will be among the Sacramento residents playing for Team USA.

“I have met and known people who have gone through homelessness, and it’s terrible,” Lona said. “For them, street soccer has been a light in the darkness. They motivate me to keep going and contributing.

“That’s the part that excites me most about the tournament,” said Lona. “It’s all about helping homeless people, letting them know that they are not alone and have support.”

Street soccer is very different from the game that Lona played most of his life. A maximum of four players per team are on the field at any given time. Games are fast, featuring two seven-minute halves and, because they are played on a smaller pitch about the size of a basketball court, plenty of scoring.

World Cup participants will sleep and dine on the Sac State campus, and teams from each country will be matched with a “guide” who will help them navigate the University campus and the city. On Wednesday, July 12, a symposium about homelessness will take place in the Sac State Union Ballroom.

Brickner, a former Sacramento City College soccer coach and local beekeeper, will serve as a guide for Team Finland.

“These players will be experiencing a new country, a new culture, other languages,” Brickner said. “I’ll be a gofer, a liaison, a support system, a cheerleader. I’m ready to help them in whatever way I’m needed.”

Brickner became intrigued with the Homeless World Cup after learning about it from a fellow soccer enthusiast.

“It’s such a unique program and event,” he said. “I love the idea of putting my energy into something that benefits the community.”

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About Cynthia Hubert

Cynthia Hubert came to Sacramento State in November 2018 after an award-winning career writing for the Sacramento Bee. Cynthia believes everyone has a good story. She lives in East Sacramento with her two cats, who enjoy bird-watching from their perch next to the living-room window.

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