Tue, Jul 08, 2003 - Page 9 News List

International soccer tournament helps homeless make strides


Harris Pankin strides onto the soccer field alone, a lanky figure with tangled dark hair and a patchwork beard. As usual, he's the first to arrive.

"Nobody shows up on time," he grumbles.

Slowly, his teammates trickle in. First is James Burch, a 40-year-old who began wandering the country after his divorce. Then comes Rory Levine, a former courier who lost his job after Sept. 11, then Jeff Rubin, a one-time train operator who says tragedy changed his life.

There are others, too -- men who have little in common apart from their rough backgrounds and the fact that they are (or recently have been) homeless.

Since winter, they've been part of an unusual program that uses soccer to try to inspire the homeless to turn their lives around. For those who stay with the team, there's an extraordinary payoff -- a trip to Graz, Austria, to represent the US in the first Homeless World Cup.

Some 18 teams from around the world -- from Brazil to Slovakia -- are competing in the tournament, a weeklong series of matches that began yesterday. Organizers have two goals: To bring international attention to homelessness and to help the homeless get jobs and housing.

"They start playing [soccer], get used to some discipline and start showing up for practice," tournament organizer Bernhard Wolf said in a telephone interview from Austria. "And then it goes on to job training and housing."

An advocate for the homeless, Wolf first proposed the idea in 2001 at a meeting of the International Network of Street Newspapers, an organization of publications aimed at -- and sold by -- homeless people. Wolf went on to raise US$250,000 to host the event.

Ron Grunberg, editor of a New York street paper called Big News, volunteered to organize the US team. He started recruiting players a year ago, holding practices at a public field across from a soup kitchen.

From the beginning, Grunberg says, it was difficult getting players to show up for more than a few practices at a time.

"With homeless people, there's not much in the way of organization or ability to stay in touch," he says. "No phone numbers, no addresses that are fixed."

Then there's the uncertainty of street life. One player was beaten so badly he had to be hospitalized. Another, recovering from cocaine and heroin addiction, had to return to rehab.

Another stumbling block was Americans' indifference to soccer, which made it difficult for Grunberg to find skilled players. (England, where soccer is ubiquitous, has numerous soccer teams for homeless people.)

Pankin, the team's goalie, has been one of the most dedicated players, rarely missing a practice. He says he was lead singer of a punk band until he was evicted from his apartment three years ago. Now he sells books on the street and spends most nights in a Bronx shelter.

Pankin is known for his in-your-face attitude. Grunberg calls him "Punk-Rock Spirit" for his tendency to tussle with other players.

"I have a bad temper," Pankin acknowledges. "It's mostly because I'm a perfectionist. I get more upset with myself than with the other players."

Of all his teammates, Jeff Rubin, 52, tells one of the most dramatic personal stories. While working as a train operator, Rubin says, he saw a young woman leap onto the tracks in front of him, killing herself. The event scarred him so much, he says, that he eventually left his job, his girlfriend and their children.

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