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Symposium offers moving personal stories, causes, and possible solutions to homelessness

Homeless World Cup representatives, members of Sacramento State, and other officials discussed the power of soccer, ways to resolve homelessness, and more during a Symposium July 12 at Sacramento State. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

The Homeless World Cup is far more than a soccer competition.

For formerly homeless people taking part in the tournament, it is a significant part of their journey out of poverty, addiction, and housing insecurity. It is about being part of a team, making friends from all corners of the world, and rebuilding confidence and hope.

At a July 12 symposium in Sacramento State’s University Union Ballroom, speakers discussed some of the reasons people become homeless, and how soccer and the Homeless World Cup can be tools for recovery and stability.

The event also saw unveiling of the Cities Ending Homelessness campaign, announced by Homeless World Cup and Catalyst 2030, a global movement of people and organizations committed to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS) by 2030.

The campaign will highlight global homelessness and focus on solutions, enlisting entrepreneurs, people experiencing homelessness, city leaders, and others to share ideas and information about ending homelessness.

“The aim is to create a new global network of cities that are committed to ending homelessness,” said Mel Young, Homeless World Cup co-founder and president. “We will also work with universities and social entrepreneurs, giving us access to global thought leaders and leading academics in the field.”

Former U.S. professional soccer star Hope Solo, who said her father was homeless for much of his life, moderated a discussion among players from this year’s Homeless World Cup, which is taking place at Sac State’s Hornet Stadium through July 15.

“If you have the will and the means, you have an extraordinary responsibility to make a difference.” -- Chet Hewitt, Sierra Health Foundation president and chief executive officer

The event marks the first time that the tournament has been held in the United States, and the first time on a college campus.

Edward Kiwanuka-Quinlan, who became homeless in Canada while grieving the death of his mother, credited street soccer – a variation of soccer, played in the tournament and elsewhere – and the global tournament for helping him stave off thoughts of suicide. Playing soccer helped him rediscover joy, and gave him a sense of purpose, he said.

“I wouldn’t be here without it,” said Kiwanuka-Quinlan, who serves as a coach for Canadian street soccer players.

Lisa Wrightsman, a former Sac State soccer player who experienced homelessness after she lost her dream of playing professionally, said she regained a sense of identity after discovering street soccer.

“I felt free again,” she said. Wrightsman and her wife, Tiffany Fraser, helped found Sacramento’s first women’s street soccer team and played key roles in bringing the Homeless World Cup to Sac State.

Homelessness is on the rise across the globe, and is visibly increasing in Sacramento, said Chet Hewitt, president and chief executive officer of the Sierra Health Foundation. The foundation focuses on resolving health inequities in the region.

Sacramento is doing “too little, too slowly” to address homelessness, which has increased by 67% since 2019, he said.

As the region emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, “we’ve got to make sure that affordable housing and public health are part of rebuilding that infrastructure,” he said, adding that Sacramento also needs far more shelter beds for men, women, and children who are homeless.

Hewitt challenged the audience to push for such changes.

“If you have the will and the means, you have an extraordinary responsibility to make a difference,” he said.

Hewitt praised Sacramento State President Robert S. Nelsen for welcoming the Homeless World Cup to campus. The players, he said, are “living examples of how people can change their lives and circumstances.”

Studies have shown that engaging in sports helps build resilience and leads to better physical and mental health, said Dr. Shannon Thyne, a pediatrician at UCLA and a public health advocate.

“Evidence supports what we are all doing here today,” Thyne told the full-house symposium audience. Soccer, she said, “can be a powerful tool to support healing from adversity and trauma.”

Nelsen said the Homeless World Cup, featuring hundreds of players from around the world, has exceeded his expectations.

“It’s been a great week,” said Nelsen, who will retire from Sac State at the conclusion of the tournament. “This is my last week here, and it’s one of the greatest weeks I’ve ever had.”

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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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