Caught Between Debts and the Street, a Soccer Team Gives Hope to Jerusalem's Homeless

Some of them used to own businesses until their worlds collapsed. After practice they go sleep in a hostel, or in the street. Soccer helps them regain their dignity

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Practice session of the homeless soccer team in Jerusalem, July 2018
Practice session of the homeless soccer team in Jerusalem, July 2018Credit: Emil Salman
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Every Thursday evening, about 10 amateur soccer players meet on a small field near the Jewish Youth Center (Beit Hanoar Ha’ivri) in southern Jerusalem. Ovadia, 45, has a college degree and is a lab technician; Sasson Yosef, 51, who used to own a company that poured concrete for parking lots; Zelig Greenwald, who ran a poker club in New York; and Shlomo Lankri, who played professional soccer for years, are a few of the players.

Today, all of them are at a very different place in their lives. They come to the soccer field from a hostel for the homeless – or directly from the streets. All their life stories have some sort of fracture - A serious illness, psychiatric crisis, divorce, debts or drugs – that diverted them from the paths of their lives and turned them homeless.

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Every one of them found himself living on park benches, in a car or tent. The homeless soccer team, which is part of the nonprofit Israel Homeless Soccer Team organization, is part of the treatment the staff is using to try and restore some of their dignity, self-worth and a sense of belonging. Three weeks ago, the team managed to eke out a goal-filled tie against a team of Bank of Israel employees. It was seven to seven.

Practice session of the homeless soccer team in Jerusalem, July 2018
Practice session of the homeless soccer team in Jerusalem, July 2018Credit: Emil Salman

The Jerusalem homeless soccer team is part of an international organization of similar clubs, the Homeless World Cup Foundation, which organizes the annual Homeless World Cup tournament. They run over 450 programs in 73 countries.   

The idea of importing the concept to Israel came from Omri Abramovich, a social worker, and Ori Shoham, the former director of the Yesh Atid party in the Knesset. The two founded the Israel Homeless Soccer Team nonprofit, and with the help of city hall and Metzila, a program for the prevention of crime and violence under the auspices of the Public Security Ministry, they opened the first such team in Tel Aviv five years ago. The Jerusalem group started up a year ago, with the aid of the Jerusalem municipality, and plans on participating in the next world cup tournament, which will be held a year from now in a still as yet undetermined location.

"The idea is to help the homeless get together, to feel like they belong. Soccer is a treatment tool,” says Abramovich. Most of the group’s activities are the weekly practice sessions. In Tel Aviv, they have a field in Jaffa and for the past five years the players don’t miss practices. “People know we are there and this is their anchor in life. We are also nudniks, we don’t give up on them,” says Abramovich.

In addition to the weekly practice sessions, the coaches help the players during the rest of the week in dealing with government authorities, receiving their rights and joining rehabilitation programs.

“We discovered that this is a very powerful tool. Many of them played soccer in their childhood in the neighborhood, professionally or amateur,” says the coach of the Jerusalem team Assaf Yonovich.

“And then they entered decades of drugs and prisons and now soccer is bringing them back to a healthy place from their past. People who live alone and are used to loneliness suddenly need to play together, to share. On the field we are all equal, the staff and the players,” said Yonovich. “On the field we are all normal.” Research conducted on the team revealed that soccer helps the players remain free of drugs, makes them more optimistic about the future and gives them dignity and meaning in their lives.  

Compared to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem has very few homeless. The homeless unit in the city’s social services division knows of 165 homeless in Jerusalem, 30 of whom still live on the street and the rest live in hostels or in various rehabilitation programs. Many of them suffer from addiction or have psychiatric problems.

Stolen identity

Sasson Yosef, Jerusalem 2018
Sasson Yosef, Jerusalem 2018Credit: Emil Salman

The players on the Jerusalem homeless team all repeat the adage that “anyone can fall.” They of course do not mean falling on the field. “I was married, I had a good job, I had a company for pouring smooth concrete for parking lots – a normative person with a home, children, good times,” says Yosef. “One day, I came home from work, took a shower, came out and got dressed – and felt that something was wrong, I called for my daughter to call my wife – and I woke up in Assaf Harofeh [Hospital].”

Yosef suffered a serious stroke and as a result lost his job. After his disability allowance was revoked (“They photographed me twice opening a bottle of cola and rejected me,” he says), Yosef fell into debt, divorced and found himself on the street. He lived in a homeless encampment in the Arlosoroff Park in Tel Aviv and was seriously injured when a fire broke out in the structure where he was sleeping. He comes out on the field on crutches to play goalie. “A normal person would say that his dream is to fly to a vacation in Lapland or something like that,” says Yosef. “For me it is to have a home where I could invite my children to sit normally.”

Ovadia (who requested for us not to use his last name), 45, came to Israel from Yemen when he was 25 and served as a combat soldier in the IDF. Before that he studied in Cuba and graduated college with a degree as a medical lab technician. In Israel, he worked in his profession for a drug company, married and had three children. Like many other homeless, the crisis broke out for him over his divorce. “She threw me out of the house and I lost my mind.”

“I lived in the car, slept at a friend’s falafel stand. I didn’t have money and didn’t have food. I would steal from the garbage, I would steal from the grocery store – for almost a year I lived that way,” says Ovadia. Like many of his friends on the team, he too spent time in prison. “Every workplace I went to, they got everything they asked for and were pleased – until they saw my [criminal] records and they shut the door in my face.” On the field Ovadia plays forward: “Soccer has given me love and a connection, everyone is number 1.”

Zelig (Zigi) Greenwald’s story may sound like fiction, but he has firm proof of how real it is. Greenwald, 42, lived in the United States and worked as the manager of a poker club in New York. Seven years ago, he came to Israel and within a short time he was sinking in huge debts created by his brother, who had been using Zelig’s identity for years. “I came to do an ID card and they told me it’s not you. Someone has been living in my name for 20 years.”

His brother’s debts and entanglements forced him onto the streets. Recently, the court recognized his identity was stolen and ordered the Interior Ministry to issue him an ID card – but at the Law Enforcement and Collection Authority, the former Bailiff’s Office, all the debts are still listed in his name. His coach, Yonovich, has been helping Greenwald with the bureaucratic ad legal processes in an attempt to rehabilitate his life. “If it wasn’t for this thing with my brother, I would have continued with my life,” says Greenwald.

Invisible people

Yonovich is a law student, who has worked for years with the rehabilitation of at risk youths.  Recently, two players left the squad after they went for withdrawal therapy. One of them left the treatment program and is now back on the street. “There are people here who went through decades of addiction and years of living in the street, and today they don’t see the world the way you and I see it,” says Yonovich, the coordinator of the program.

“I really don’t know if, as they say, it can happen to anyone, but of course, life’s circumstances dictate things and in a different situation it seems they wouldn't have reached the streets,” said Yonovich. “I feel that some of them are not at the height of mental stability today, and I ask myself, if I had run into what they had, maybe I would also be in a similar mental state?  It’s very possible I would be, I don’t know what to say."

Practice session of the homeless soccer team in Jerusalem, July 2018
Practice session of the homeless soccer team in Jerusalem, July 2018Credit: Emil Salman

“There are brilliant people here. If you would put them in other contexts, you'd see them developing completely differently. Life channeled them to this place. Soccer works here like a magic pill,” says Abramovich.

The goalie, Lankri, stands out on the field. He reprimands the players, shouts and in general looks much more professional than his teammates. He played for the Beitar youth team and was the goalie for two professional teams:  HaPoel Beit Shemesh and Beitar Nahariya. “Soccer is the love of my life,” he says. But drug use dragged him into life on the streets and a number of suicide attempts. “Today, I know why it’s worth living, I’m willing to give my life to this team,” says Lankri.

"The team has power," says the outgoing director of the homeless sunit, Hanna Eliyahu-Wiesel. "They celebrate birthdays together, for them it's really not a trivial thing. To be homeless is an experience of transparency. I had an employee that went shoe shopping with a client and the saleswoman addressed her, because if he looks physically derelict than he's transparent. Now look at what you have here on the field and understand how wonderful it is."