Pitch side image of the the London Stadium interior with the West Ham United badge in view.

Ex-England footballer hails London Stadium sleepout for helping tackle homelessness

Former England footballer Paul Stewart praised the first ever London Stadium sleepout for helping raise awareness of youth homelessness.

Registrants pitched up for the night at the home of West Ham United on 19 November to mark the inaugural Football for Good Day, a global initiative aimed at harnessing the power of the sport across 56 Commonwealth countries.

Stewart, who made three appearances for the Three Lions in the early 1990s, hailed the sleepout for highlighting the issue of homelessness.

The 59-year-old former Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur player said: “Events like this are massively important in raising awareness for situations like homelessness.

“They really bring something positive to those who are struggling in life.”

SSF AMBASSADOR: Former England player Paul Stewart (Credit: The Street Soccer Foundation)

Preceding the sleepout was a five-a-side tournament organised by the Street Soccer Foundation (SSF), a charity using football to tackle youth homelessness for which Stewart has been an ambassador since its 2015 inception.

The competition comprised teams from the Street Soccer Academy, a project in partnership with several Premier League and EFL clubs that offers a ten-week personal development programme for 18 to 30-year-olds currently experiencing or at risk of homelessness.

Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka donated more than 100 pairs of boots for the tournament, which was won by the Chelsea Foundation following a 3-1 win over Salford City’s Foundation 92 in the final.

WINNERS: Chelsea Foundation celebrate with the Street Soccer Champions Cup

Stewart, who has witnessed the Academy’s work first-hand, believes football has a duty to help the communities it serves.

He said: “Football is the biggest game in the world and clubs are a pillar of communities, a real focal point.

“Therefore, the sport has a moral obligation to help these people wherever possible.

“I saw a massive change in the individuals taking part in the first programme at Liverpool.

“To see that transformation was enlightening and heart-warming and makes you realise how vital organisations like Street Soccer are.”

SSF ambassador Jodie Coombes also understands the importance of giving vulnerable young people the opportunity to turn their lives around.

The 27-year-old enrolled in the West Ham United Foundation programme after being on the streets for two years following a breakdown in a family relationship.

Coombes said: “It was a pretty dark time, but I’m past that now – I’m a completely different person.

“When I started at Street Soccer, I was so shy I wouldn’t talk to anyone. But when it came to playing football, that’s when I really came alive.

“I gained so much confidence on and off the pitch so the programme really helped me a lot.”

Coombes recognises the positive impact events like the tournament and sleepout can have on those affected by homelessness.

She added: “To have the confidence to talk to people, let alone try and get a job, I know how hard that can be. So events like this make such a difference.”

LIGHTS OUT: The London Stadium hosts its first ever sleepout event

Despite the work of organisations like SSF, homelessness figures in England are rising.

According to housing charity Shelter, 79,840 households faced homelessness between January and March 2023 – the highest number on record.

Latest figures commissioned by The Greater London Authority show the number of people sleeping rough on London’s streets rose by 12% in the last year.

The sleepout also comes just weeks after the now-former Home Secretary Suella Braverman described homelessness as a lifestyle choice.

Braverman’s comments, according to Stewart and SSF CEO Keith Mabbutt, only add to the negative stigma around homelessness.

Stewart said: “It isn’t a lifestyle choice.

“To say such a thing was abhorrent.

“Most people are forced into these situations through no fault of their own, often because they are unable to afford accommodation and there’s also sometimes a mental health aspect too.”

Mabbutt added: “I’ve gone out to the streets and spoken to homeless people and often it comes from a relationship breakdown that’s caused difficulty in the home environment.

“I still think lots of people see a rough sleeper and assume they’ve got a drug or alcohol problem.

“But these issues are usually coping mechanisms because they’ve become homeless, which makes it even more difficult for someone to get out of that situation.

“And that’s clearly where an intervention is required.”

Mabbutt is hopeful the London Stadium event will help change the narrative and encourage more young people affected by homelessness to seek help.

He said: “What we’re showing these young people is that there are lots of people who care for them and want to support them.

“It’s all about amplifying that message. Hopefully there will be plenty of eyeballs on the event and we can make a real difference going forward.”

Feature image: The Street Soccer Foundation

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