A sports program to try and cure homelessness? It may sound at first glance like a government program gone off the rails, but for nearly a decade, Street Soccer USA has been combating homelessness and poverty through an organized sports program that puts the homeless onto soccer teams. With this year's Street Soccer USA National Cup taking place in Times Square at the end of July, we spoke with SSUSA founder Lawrence Cann about the past, present, and future of this unique program.

The origins of SSUSA trace back to Lawrence's hometown of Charlotte, where he observed what he described as "inauthenticity" while volunteering in a soup kitchen. "There's so much role-playing going on in the homeless service world," Cann told Gothamist. "There are people who are in need, they needed resources. There are people who sit on one side of the desk, and they have resources. And if these folks would come up - if they told the right story, if they had the right act, they would get the bus pass or the meal or the referral they needed."

With a focus on building relationships instead of role-playing, Cann created his first homeless soccer team because with a large number of young people on the street, "sports seemed the best way to connect with them and create a venue for creating an authentic relationship based in the shared experience of playing together." Why soccer over other sports? "We talked about basketball - at the end of the day, soccer just worked the best. It didn't matter your body size or your gender: anyone could play and find a way to fit in. You ran the whole time, and there's that kind of immediate physical return."

At the time, there was no intention to create a national program. "Our focus was to do a short experiment to try and help one particular homeless service center connect better to the 18-to-24 year olds that were there that they were not connecting to meaningfully with." But media attention drew interest from both the social services community as well as soccer enthusiasts, giving Cann an opportunity to use the experiment in Charlotte as a model rather than a one-off. "We had other people reaching out to us asking what we did and how we did it. So we invited them to Charlotte and did a training weekend, which was really the genesis of the program." Since that first year, Street Soccer has grown to 20 cities, including current flagship cities New York and San Francisco.

The SSUSA National Cup finals took place in Times Square. (Stephanie Norris)

The results have been significant: Street Soccer reports that within a year of completing the program, 75% of their players are connected with jobs or housing, further their education, or complete rehab. Individual success stories are easy to come by, and Cann spoke in particular of Norman Ruano-Rodriguez, a 19-year-old who entered the program in San Francisco in 2011. His connection with his coach and mentor not only lead to him completing a program at the San Francisco Conservation Corps, but also lead to a job with SolarCity inputting solar panels.

"SolarCity said, 'We need more employees like Norman who are looking for a job, we're hiring,'" he recalled. Cann also reflected that beyond job retention and reduced criminalization, he was collecting data that showed that the program helped reduce health care costs. "We really believe that sports--when designed and delivered the right way--can be a big driver of healthier communities for the homeless and people living in poverty."

The growth of the program hasn't been without hurdles. Cann mentions that there's at least one challenge his team has to deal with every week, most typically explaining that his program isn't a fluke. "Our way of approaching relationships with social work somewhat novel, so we get some pushback all along the way. A lot of people saying, 'Why teach people to play soccer? They should get jobs!' People were kind of looking at us like we were crazy, or what we were doing didn't make sense. The icebreaking thing in every context is the hardest...people assume that I've got some sort of personal agenda about this, or came from the outside. But really we built this from the inside out—we were doing homeless services first."

Partnerships have been key to SSUSA's ability to expand so rapidly over the last decade. Government partnerships are the most critical, although Cann reflected that the original experiment in Charlotte had government opposition. "A couple members of the county commission really kind of bad mouthed us without taking the time to learn what we were about in the early days." Those days are behind him, and close partnerships with agencies like the NYC Department of Homeless Services have helped the program expand. "In terms of our needs, the great thing about our program is it's not designed to help distribute a bunch of resources at ten or twenty people. It's a very low resource program, and it doesn't cost a lot to implement - but we need stuff like field space and access to shelters and people we want to reach."

The New York Red Bulls' Dax McCarty and Andre Akpan at the National Cup. (Stephanie Norris)

Another key partnership is that with figures in the US soccer community, including a number of program ambassadors from Major League Soccer. "They're very accessible people, and there is something about soccer—the people who get soccer get what we do, and they've just been very generous with their time. In the case of guys like [Chris Wondolowski] and Dax [McCarty], they've been only been more and more involved each year, which is really exciting to see them kind of grow with us."

Street Soccer has been busy this summer, with the first West Coast Cup taking place in San Francisco at the end of June and the annual National Cup following in NYC in late July. "It was great to break the ice on the West Coast and do that event, and have the support of the city was huge. It's a great way to galvanize our local programs on the west coast." Cann spoke of the organization's growing ability to handle these events and how that would help enable further growth. "Our goal is to have regional tournaments in every region, and to eventually have city cups in each of our cities...what the marathon is to running, these Street Soccer tournaments in each city should be to soccer."

A group of players pose for a photo at the National Cup. (Stephanie Norris)

With nine years running the program under his belt, Street Soccer USA is focused not just on continuing to spread the program to additional cities, but also generating revenue to sustain it. No specific cities have been identified for a program on the scale of NYC's or San Francisco's efforts, but Cann seemed open to whichever cities wanted to partner with SSUSA to make it a reality.

Cann explained that his vision is not solely on ending homelessness, but also preventing it. "We see big challenges that face the communities across the US. We focused on homelessness, but that's just a symptom of poverty. Folks are under-educated and under-employed, and most of our folks that end up homeless are coming from impoverished communities and low-income housing developments. We really want to set up the development model in those communities, so hopefully people can develop a support network and the soft skills they need, and connect to the other services that will help them so they don't end up homeless."

Where would he like Street Soccer to end up? In the soccer community, Cann sees his organization as part of the grassroots aspects of the sport. "I think there is a disconnect between the grassroots soccer players, particularly in urban communities, and the kind of formal academy system. Our focus is to be part of the development of soccer in urban areas at a real grassroots level, at a non-formal level, and hopefully connect folks to the formal level." And in the larger picture of US non-profits, he's not aiming small: "We want to be an institution, you know, like the Girl Scouts, or one of these big national organizations. That's what we're aiming towards and trying to put building blocks for that together now."