Portland FC makes soccer accessible for players at risk
For most soccer coaches, losing is not a good thing.
But Alan Bates isn’t most soccer coaches, and for him results aren’t important. In fact, losing players from his team is almost always a good thing, because it means they’ve taken significant strides in life.
Bates is the head coach of Portland FC, a team of men and women recruited from homeless shelters run by the Portland Hotel Society in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Since first reading about the city’s homeless soccer scene on Facebook two years ago, Bates, a UBC psychiatry resident at St. Paul’s Hospital, has played a leading role in getting Vancouver’s homeless, addicted, and at-risk people involved in the beautiful game.
For Bates, coaching Portland FC is a chance to give back to his community and to share his love of the sport with people who don’t have many outlets for athletic endeavours.
Twice weekly, Bates, a group of volunteer coaches, coordinators, shelter staff, and Portland FC’s players—mostly men, although there are some women involved—gather for practices at the Carnegie Community Centre’s gymnasium or on the artificial-turf fields of Andy Livingstone Park, not far from GM Place. And judging by the solid turnouts, it is easy to see how having the opportunity to play soccer is helping residents of Vancouver’s roughest neighbourhood.
“Anybody is welcome to play with us, whether they’re from one of the shelters or if they’re homeless on the streets,” Bates tells the Straight in a telephone interview. “The Downtown Eastside is a harsh reality. The most important thing about Portland FC is the friendship it provides. It could be any team sport—baseball, basketball. It could even be something like music that gets people together. But with soccer, you just need a ball and that’s it. The shelter staff has told us that through soccer a lot of the residents have become closer friends.”
One of the other things that have stood out for Bates since Portland FC was formed a year ago is the drastic improvement shown by many of the players. Bates is well aware of the fact that he’s not trying to develop soccer stars. However, he says it’s clear that a number of the Portland FC members played the game at some point but, for various reasons, fell away from it as their situations in life unfolded.
Because of addiction or mental-health issues, many of the Portland FC players have had trouble sticking with programs. But Bates says the players’ commitment to the team and to the sport has been inspiring.
“I think it’s pretty common to find guys who played years ago and were fairly successful back then, and they’ve been able to become fairly successful again,” he says. “Some of the guys have pretty amazing skills, and I have to say a few are among the best players I’ve ever played with.”
Soon, those top-end players—and their coach—will likely have the opportunity of a lifetime. Bates expects to be named head coach of Canada’s entry in the Homeless World Cup, a 64-country tournament running September 19 to 26 in Rio de Janeiro. Officials from Street Soccer Canada will be in Vancouver for a Team Canada selection camp in late July, when they’ll probably name their coach and stock the team with several Downtown Eastside residents.
“I’m hoping we’ll be able to use Oppenheimer Park for the camp,” Bates says of the prime parcel of land in the heart of the community, which serves as a gathering point for many area residents and even a home for some. “From what I’ve heard, Team Canada will be made up of mainly players from Portland FC and the Sun Eagles [another local team]. It would be an amazing chance to get to coach and be a part of a big sporting event and represent your country.”
While governments at various levels claim to be making progress in the battle to curb homelessness, Bates continues to see interest in his soccer program grow. It’s at the point where the wheels are in motion to move past the loose amalgamation of teams like Portland FC and find a way for them to form their own league.
“There are a handful of homeless soccer teams in the area—the Sun Eagles, North Shore Shields, and the Burnaby Kickers,” Bates says. “We’re trying to see if we can put something together to form a league so that we can actually schedule games for our team, rather than playing in tournaments once a month or every six weeks.”
The kind of team Portland FC could field for regularly scheduled games is anyone’s guess. That’s where the notion that losing can be a good thing comes into play. The most rewarding part of the process for Alan Bates is when, for all the right reasons, players are no longer available to the program.
“Through soccer, we have seen guys clean up their lives, get off drugs, get jobs, and move out of the Downtown Eastside,” the coach explains. “We have seen the positive effect that soccer has had on people. And it won’t be a bad thing if we can be part of the solution to homelessness.”
While that day still seems a long way off, Bates has seen firsthand the need for programs like the one he’s delivering with Portland FC. And so he’ll continue to bring sport to people who don’t have many chances to play, and to help those who want to kick a ball as part of kicking a habit.
Jeff Paterson is a talk-show host on Vancouver’s all-sports radio, Team 1040. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/patersonjeff/.