When she saw nothing but black flesh and the raw, exposed tendon where her middle finger should have been, Paula Armstrong reached her breaking point.
The blond, one-time high school track star and long jump record-setter from Winnipeg, was as good as dead, she told herself. Crack was the culprit.
That was it for me, Armstrong said last week, 12 days before she joins the first Canadian womens team to travel to the Homeless World Cup and play soccer in Paris, France. I looked at myself in the mirror, I said, Paula, youve lost your finger to this drug, youve lost your teeth to this drug. Whats next? Nothings next but death.
Death wasnt for Armstrong, who now takes pride and even glee in recounting the story of her amputated finger, this time as recently as last weekend for her teammates and coaches after practice with the Vancouver Street Soccer League.
Theyre grotesque and riveting, the details of her rotting flesh and the decay that nearly took her entire right hand. Also engaging is the story of her affluent, white-collar criminal ex-husband. When he went to jail, she headed west.
More engrossing than the gore or the gossip, however, is Armstrong herself. A vigorous hand-talker, who wears a white bandana to keep fine hair and sweat off her forehead during a Sunday soccer scrimmage at Strathcona Park, her eyes are rimmed with a flirtatious smudge of mascara and no rouge can recreate the natural flush on her cheeks. Shes as alive as she once feared dead.
It over simplifies Armstrongs accomplishments to claim soccer as her salvation. She sought treatment, committed to sobriety and embraced the holistic program at the Rainier Hotel, a womens residence with 41 suites operated by Vancouver Coastal Health and the Portland Hotel Society where she detoxed on a methadone program and embraced the virtues of harm reduction. Its where she heard about a soccer program and where she now makes her permanent home.
All considered, the sport remains an aspect of her recovery, self-esteem and continued health. Now in her mid-50s, its as if shes reliving a far more youthful age.
The success of the Vancouver Street Soccer League has been well documented. Armstrong herself has charmed the media. When the league, which receives funding and support from the Portland Hotel Society, formed a womens team last fall, it aptly took the name Phoenix.
Six Vancouver players were selected for the Homeless World Cup. They will join a seventh from Kelowna to form the full Canadian roster for the four-a-side game that is played on a hardtop pitch roughly the size of a tennis court. A person can only travel once to play in the Homeless World Cup.
Like Armstrong, these women have been homeless at one point in their lives and most have called the Downtown Eastside home. Some seek treatment for mental illness and personality disorders, some are recovering from substance abuse and others are survivors of domestic violence. One has been in jail, another is a refugee. Three have children.
Im a volunteer with the team and can testify to the privilege and joy of being a part of someones life when things start to look up. Because of personal initiative, a network of friends, support from social work and health professionals, andmost importantly in almost all casesa home where there was none before, the women of the street soccer league are changing their circumstances for the dramatically better. They are inspirational. If this assertion seems trite, I dare you to meet one of these women and say otherwise.
The womens successes are hard-won and cherished. Take, as one example, the athlete who opted not to join her teammates on their journey. Just two weeks before the team was set to depart for Paris, the roster dropped from six to five Vancouverites. One 20-year-old player, a gifted ball-handler with speed and passion for the sport who recently came out as a lesbian, declared she was withdrawing and wouldnt be travelling to the World Cup. Instead, she will check herself into a treatment centre for drug and alcohol abuse. The decision was applauded by her teammates.
But when Debbie Krull, the teams goalkeeper, heard her young teammate was staying behind, she burst into tears. When she learned it was for addiction treatment, her tears fell out of relief and admiration.
Shes just so important to us. I just wrote her an appreciation letter yesterday, she said, running her freckled hands through dark hair.
An intellectual and hard-working woman, Krull, 38, was active in organizing and supporting the 90-day Woodwards resistance and occupation in 2002 and co-founded Moms on the Drive and then the Anti-Poverty Committee.
A Cree woman, Krull was adopted with her brother into a white family and raised in Salmon Arm. Shes close to her adoptive parents and does not have any addictions.
She identifies herself as part of the missing class, the working poor in perpetual survival mode, as she puts it. She says hers is one of the hidden faces of homelessness.
Homelessness can affect you in your own home, said Krull, who lives in an East Side housing co-op although residents were given an eviction notice for this fall. The building was slated for an overhaul thats since been put on hold. Families moved out, only to crumble under the stress.
Krull, a single mother of three children aged 12, seven and two, feels the insecurity acutely. (Krull, in glasses, is pictured on the cover of the Courier with her three children.)
In Vancouver, poverty and lack of affordable housing are the leading causes of homelessness, according to recent city-led homelessness counts.
Krull is one of 2.7 million Canadian householdsa quarter of this countrys families putting more than 30 per cent of their monthly income toward rent, according to the Canadian Council on Social Development. A 2006 Environs survey determined that roughly half of all Canadians live in fear of poverty, saying they could be poverty-stricken after missing as few as two paycheques.
A lot of homelessness can be introduced to your life by an unexpected cause outside your realm, said Krull.
When she left a violent partner and the father of her first daughter a decade ago, Krull was on the streets with a toddler and suddenly without a job. They slept on peoples couches and in emergency shelters.
She presses her lips tightly but cant find the words to express the stress and fear that linger still.
She has much more to say about sport and the Street Soccer League, which Krull intends to grow by forming a second womens team this fall. New recruits wanting to play soccer and join a team will fill the Phoenix roster.
This is my support. Im a better mom, my kids are happy and were together. And even through Im still living in a nightmare, I am functional and these are victories for the movement, she said of the intention to beat homelessness through football, the mantra of the Homeless World Cup which was started in 2003 by a non-profit organization bent on creating positive social change.
I felt really insecure, Krull added. A lot of people are embarrassed or ashamed to be homeless, but addressing homelessness through sport helps overcome the shame and develops a sense of pride. You are empowered and you feel like you can achieve even more.
In introducing sport to your life, you dont have to deal with your housing crisis, but can just deal with the game itself.
The first Homeless World Cup was held in Graz, Austria in 2003 and was co-conceived and founded by Mel Young, who launched a Scottish street paper a decade earlier and was influential in the creation of the International Network of Street Papers, which includes Vancouvers Megaphone magazine.
The Homeless World Cup takes advantage of the international popularity of the worlds beautiful game to leverage social change, in particular to address the despair and crisis of homelessness. Street Soccer Canada is the national partner organization.
In nine years, the tournament has grown in scale and reach. Nike and CNN are partners.
Sixty-four teams will travel to Paris to compete in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. A womens draw was introduced for the first time three years ago.
Alan Bates is the president of the Vancouver Street Soccer League and a dedicated volunteer coach with one of the citys teams, Portland FC, which drew its initial participants from the PHS-managed Stanley SRO and New Fountain emergency shelter on West Cordova Street.
A UBC psychiatry resident, Bates cites research done voluntarily this summer by street soccer players to bolster what he believes is a powerful program. A majority of players said their physical and mental health has improved. Approximately 20 individuals said their living situation has remained the same since they started playing soccer, and more than 30 others felt their housing has improved.
Tiah Seward counts herself among those who secured a stable, safe place to call home a year ago. Last month, she moved into Station Street, a $21.6 million purpose-built supportive residence with 80 suites located near the train station.
This was a step up from the street.
Sewards connections to social support workers through the soccer league helped open doors. Since joining the league, the 24-year-old of the Snuneymuxw First Nation arrived in Vancouver from Nanaimo and landed at the First United Church.
I called it my mansion, she said.
Seward drank almost every day with her cousin. Thats where we went: the Hastings, she said. She resisted incessant offers to smoke crack cocaine although the company around her sought it out with increasing frequency.
Then, Seward met Virgil Goosehead, with whom shed have a son, now three months old and named after his dad. He introduced her to soccer, which became a shared focus for the couple. Its somewhere I can go to enjoy myself.
Goosehead was selected for the Canadian mens street soccer team, and their baby will travel to France as well. As will the two-year-old son of Solange Yves Zackwany, a Congolese refugee and national team member. Players are selected for their dedication, attitude and because they stand to benefit from the reward of such high recognition.
Findings from Bates recent research also show a rise in employment. Twenty per centapproximately 10 players out of 50 respondentsreported an increase in income. Thats a positive finding, even though most people had no change, he said.
Erin Backer humanizes this data. The 20-year-old Vancouverite says she never could have imagined herself as the high-functioning, successful young adult she is becoming today.
I didnt have anything going for me except for sleeping on a street corner and doing She pauses, my drug of choice.
Backer was a homeless and drug-addicted teen before she moved into Covenant House, an extensive residence and day program that provides a continuum of care for youth aged 16 to 24 and tackles childhood poverty, substance abuse and homelessness head on.
According to the national homelessness awareness group, Raising the Roof, Backer was one of an estimated 65,000 Canadian teens and young adults who had nowhere to call home.
When I first got out of treatment, I didnt want to go outever. I was, like, pretty scared to go out. I was afraid of running into the wrong people, said Backer, with tangled hair, alabaster skin and high cheekbones, who shoots left-footed and whose improved health includes quitting smoking cigarettes.
Soccer was the first thing that got me out of the house.
The program at Covenant House, called Cov by some, includes a six- to 24-month transitional living program called R.O.P. for Rights of Passage.
Since starting R.O.P., Backer has begun working at an after-school care and summer day camp program for kids. Her newly learned patience, sense of respect for her leadership position as a role model, and gifted comic timing, make her a natural with kids. Her supervisor agrees.
Backer, who was previously expelled from Kitsilano and King George high schools before she landed at the specialized outdoor education program, Take A Hike, is enrolled at Langara for psychology classes next fall. She wants to become a social worker and received a $5,000 scholarship from Take A Hike to pursue her goals.
When I look back, there are some [support workers] who I will remember for the rest of my life. Some of them I dont even remember and they helped me so much. There is no way I can say thank you to them but I just want to pass it on.
She says playing soccer has contributed to her emotional healing and mental fortitude. Last week she created a tribute montage to street soccer, uploading it to YouTube taking the user name unfktheworld.
It may look like nothingwhatever, theyre just getting a bunch of bums to play soccerbut its such a huge step.
It could have been something else, but it was soccer. Thats the point.
The Canadian team departs Aug. 17 for the Homeless World Cup in Paris, France for the week-long tournament.
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