“I often tell people I have the best job in the world.” Justin McMinn has every reason to be boastful. In the course of an interview with These Football Times, however, the founder of Street Soccer NI is endearingly modest.
Fifteen years ago, he had an idea to form a five-a-side team at his local hostel. What started as a simple kickabout has transformed into a vital support service for disadvantaged groups across the province, providing a lifeline for the local homeless population as well as those with addiction and mental health issues. None of it would have been possible, however, had an 18-year-old not had the strength to overcome his own debilitating issues.
“Growing up in my teens was very difficult as I battled depression and anxiety,” McMinn admits. “When I was 18, I became a Christian and my life was turned upside down. I now had a purpose, a reason for living and a passion to reach other people.”
After studying media at a local college, he took up a job at a hostel in East Belfast. “There were a lot of young people sitting around doing nothing with their lives,” he recalls. “Many of them were addicted to drugs, lacking the motivation to change.”
As complicated as their personal circumstances were, the hostel’s inhabitants were always up for a game of football. “There was a tournament once a year called the Charity Cup,” he says. “Every year we tried to get a team together. Whilst working there, we read about the Homeless World Cup. We noticed instantly that there were no representatives for Northern Ireland.”
The seed was planted. McMinn continued to arrange regular games, sometimes convening friendlies with other hostels and joining a weekly six-a-side league. “We saw the impact the football had on our clients,” he says. “It helped them get out of the hostel, gave them structure and boosted their mental and physical health.”
During one of those tournaments, McMinn bumped into a representative from the Belfast City Sports Development Network. He spoke at length about his wish to create Northern Ireland’s first Homeless League, as well as his dream to field a team at the Homeless World Cup. The official put him in touch with Michael Boyd, Director of Football Development at the Irish Football Association, who loved the idea.
In 2010, he helped McMinn launch a weekly project in South Belfast. “Seven teams turned up representing different hostels in Belfast and Ballymena,” he says. “We ran the project every Friday for two months, basically a five-a-side tournament every week, with referees from the IFA helping to officiate the matches and keep things safe and disciplined. The guys loved it.”
After two months he had secured enough funding to keep the competition running for an entire year, managing it in conjunction with his day job as well as a gardening business. Finally, after years of e-mails and requests, McMinn got the news he’d been hoping for in 2013. His wish to represent Northern Ireland at the Homeless World Cup had been granted. Eight men were brought away for two weeks to represent their country in Poznań, Poland.
The organisation has continued growing ever since, with seven separate projects in place across Northern Ireland at the time of writing. Dedicated teams for women, those with learning disabilities, and even the over-40s have been piloted. “We have regular 11-a-sides, tournaments and trips throughout the year,” McMinn offers. “We have also been to five Homeless World Cups in places like Chile, Amsterdam, Glasglow and Oslo. Last year, we brought our first homeless women’s team to the World Cup alongside the male team.”
Things have flourished off the pitch, too. “We can now support people’s needs around housing, employment, addictions and more,” he says. “We are now a charity with a committed board, in receipt of funding that allows me to work on our projects full-time. When a player joins the project now, we do a questionnaire,” he continues. “It helps to identify any needs that that person might have, and also helps us try to support them to achieve their goals.”
What about the players themselves? Have they seen any improvement in their circumstances since joining Street Soccer? “Absolutely,” says McMinn. “We have seen many players get their own home and receive support through us that helps them maintain their tenancy. We have also witnessed people get into full or part-time work after years of being unemployed. Many young homeless men have been known to take their own lives in Northern Ireland; we believe this project has kept many people alive who might otherwise have been on the brink of suicide.”
The testimony of one client provides harrowing proof of that theory. “I was homeless, I had no family, I was self-harming on a daily basis,” he admits. “I was taking tablets every day of the week, trying to commit suicide. There were ambulance men checking on me every day just to make sure I was still alive.”
Now, that same player can boast of representing his country at the Homeless World Cup. Since then, he has moved into his own home, gained full-time employment and achieved his coaching badges. What’s more, he hasn’t self-harmed in almost a year. “When the players return from that 10-day trip it does something amazing for them,” McMinn marvels about the Homeless World Cup. “They want to make better choices. They become motivated and confident enough to take steps towards employment and independent living.”
The benefits are emotional, too, he explains. “Street Soccer is like a family to many of the players. They feel like they can always come to us for support. We try to bring people together. Before joining us, for example, many of the participants wouldn’t have engaged with someone from another community. Now they have made friendships with those people and changed their perceptions.”
Some of the clients might have a history of anti-social behaviour, but McMinn suggests that the project has benefitted them. “Street Soccer has kept so many people out of prison. When clients join us, there is so much football throughout the week that they have structure and something to focus on.”
Even today, some eight years after his idea became a reality, McMinn is effusive about the positive changes that Street Soccer NI has helped bring about. “Being involved with something so life-changing gives me a real sense of satisfaction. When I hear the testimonies from the players, I realised how much of a difference we are actually making and that drives me on to reach more and more people.”
It’s just as well considering Northern Ireland’s homeless problem continues to worsen. According to a report from the Audit Office in 2017, the number of people without shelter has risen by 32 percent in the last five years.
McMinn refuses to be cowed by the statistics, however. “There is great support out there for homeless people. There are many homeless hostels and support services available to provide food, clothes and shelter. We have witnessed so many people who are in and out of hostels and social housing, whether it be due to mental health issues, isolation or other factors,” he continues.
“When players join our project, we offer them support in getting a house, and we help maintain their home through regular tenancy support. We help them with furniture and other basic needs too, so the player feels more confident living independently. I think having a routine and regular social activities is key for helping our players move forward in life.”
In the absence of a devolved government, Street Soccer will continue to help disadvantaged groups through football. McMinn cites the work of sister organisation Street Soccer Scotland as a model. “Our goal is to grow like them,” he suggests. “We want at least 10 people working for the charity, along with the local coordinators and referees we already have in place. I believe we will have a stronger relationship with businesses and our network of sponsors, too, which will help us bring in more money. At the minute, we are dependent on grants which can be quite restrictive.”
Ideally, there would be no need for an organisation like Street Soccer to exist at all, though McMinn has no time to indulge in fantasy or wishful thinking. “I see us developing more projects throughout the country, working with even more groups and helping more people,” he concludes.
McMinn and his charity have come a long way in the past decade. Northern Ireland’s homeless problem isn’t going away any time soon, but nor are the people determined to use football to do something about it.
By Christopher Weir @chrisw45