How a social enterprise uses football and digital media to bring the problems and perceptions of homelessness into play.
Homelessness—one of the world’s most intractable, wicked problems, which is compounded by poor awareness and great stigma—affects millions of people worldwide. Combining an event involving a globally recognised sport—football (soccer)—and an array of digital media tools and techniques, the Homeless World Cup (HWC) offers an innovative, multi-platform model to reimagine homelessness and the perceptions that surround it. The 2017 tournament will take place in Oslo (Aug 29–Sept. 5). It will be the HWC’s 15th edition.
The HWC was devised by The Big Issue (Scotland) editor Mel Young and fellow street paper editor Harald Schmied, from Austrian street paper Megaphon, at a street paper conference in 2001. Frustrated at being at an event about tackling homelessness with no homeless people present or able to speak for themselves, Young and Schmied decided to create a conference that did. The first iteration took place in 2003 in Graz, Austria.
In the face of obvious language barriers, Young suggested a football tournament on the grounds that the world’s most popular sport needs little translation. The result is a pioneering social movement, disguised as a football tournament, that advocates for the end of homelessness. During the HWC some 500 players participate, making up teams from over 70 countries. Played on tennis court-sized pitches, the tournament is fast, furious and entertaining. It is nothing if not a transformative event that enables homeless and marginalised participants to build relationships and become teammates who learn to trust and share. Players have a responsibility to attend training sessions and games, to be on time, to be prepared and to participate. They are encouraged to, and often do, feel they are part of something larger than themselves. Where its focus is on health, fitness and social inclusion as well as housing in its efforts to tackle homelessness, the HWC empowers. Being involved helps people realise change, and that there is support and encouragement available to do so. As a sporting exemplification of The Big Issue’s edict, the HWC offers people ‘a hand up, not a hand out’.
The tournament’s use of social media, which includes live commentary of matches via its Twitter feed, Facebook page, and YouTube channel, has become increasingly sophisticated and made the tournament exponentially more accessible. Indeed, outside of the venue and those directly involved, online is arguably where the tournament has its broadest appeal and greatest impact.
During and between tournaments an army of organisers, advocates and volunteers ensure an internationally dispersed audience can keep up with news and stories as they emerge. Matches are live streamed via Facebook and videos are archived for re-watching and re-living the best moments. These videos are popular with players, families and friends alike and often act as an adrenaline-inducing touchstone for players to remember the tournament long after they return home, often to challenging situations as they work to improve their lives. Some of the top teams, who take the football as seriously as the issues the tournament works to tackle, analyse the videos to gain insight into their opponents.
But while football is obviously a large part of the event’s focus, the sport gives way to the participants and their stories. These stories are shared across a range of platforms (developing concurrently to the event itself) by football-fans but also by audiences who are not fans, and even some who would not normally consider themselves advocates for the homeless. The affordability and accessibility of social media and smartphones enable players to first see and spread (see Jenkins, Ford and Green (2013)), then add to, the stories that are written about them. (While smartphone access and ownership is not traditionally associated with people who are homeless, mobile phone coverage is in fact almost omnipresent. An estimated 95 per cent of the world’s population—or approximately seven billion people—have access to at least a 2G mobile phone network, and people in both developing and developed nations prioritise access to communication technology. Worldwide, 44.9 per cent of women and 51.1 per cent of men worldwide use the internet, with figures for the developed world as high as 80.0 and 82.3 per cents, respectively (International Telecommunication Union 2016, 1–3). Additionally, the HWC team managers and support staff bring smartphones and other internet-enabled devices such as iPads to the event, which players can use to access social media. This ensures that all players can participate both on the pitch and in the virtual world.) In fact, any slowness in uploading match videos is often met with coaches chasing the media team to enquire what’s taking so long. Players ask when and where the feature articles written about them will be posted so they can look out for them and share them among their own networks. Similarly, high quality cameras embedded in smartphones have enabled tournament players and participants to share images and video content of their HWC experiences—there is not the same heavy reliance on others to capture their stories to validate or preserve them.
This organic social media-based approach to telling and sharing stories embodies two key elements. There is empowerment and great traction in this low-budget, ‘Jenkins’ take on transmedia storytelling, in which each part can stand alone and engage different audiences across different platforms, while simultaneously contributing to a larger whole. And, it realises Young’s and Schmied’s aim to have people who are homeless and marginalised tell their own stories rather than being the subject of other peoples’ stories.
The largely digital nature of the content enables errors (such as those obtained through translation issues or misunderstanding) to be quickly corrected, often in real time—something rarely available to people about whom stories are written. And given that the players, coaches, family, friends, HWC community and the general public is actively involved in and following the event online (including those who are attending the event itself), the HWC is the reference or focal point for the production and distribution of stories, often collating and sharing content from other publications and users. Indeed, the tournament plays out like the traditional transmedia mothership in a story that seeks to address a significant social issue and its myriad challenges. Essentially, the football tournament acts as the core element, and the tournament launches smaller, related content and narratives from and that connect back to this source. Players and the wider community encounter, guide and redirect these content according to their own needs and interests. The model, as a social enterprise and its use of football—particularly its presentation of participants’ personal narratives and the affordances each offers in this innovative reimagining of homelessness—has been touched on, critiqued and examined across a range of perspectives (Sherry 2010, Magee 2011, Magee and Jeanes 2013).
While one of the most common observations—‘These people don’t look homeless’—is made by those who stumble across the event in the host city and those who encounter it via their social media feeds, people are universally intrigued. Co-founder Young considers the piqued interest an opportunity to have an open, informed discussion about homelessness. He asks people ‘if they think homelessness is a good idea?’ The answer is universally ‘no’. He asks the observer ‘what they think homelessness looks like?’ And ‘why they do not think the players look homeless’. He talks about what his definition of ‘success’ in tackling homeless looks like. When Brazilians Michelle da Silva and Darlon Martins were awarded professional football contracts, it shone a spotlight on their football skills, but for Young, the best examples are not about the football. He once encountered a bus driver who said, ‘Hello, Mel’. Young didn’t recognize the driver, but he was, it turned out, a former player who had returned from his HWC experience and found stable accommodation, obtained his driver’s licence, full-time work, and was engaged to be married. ‘To me, this illustrates what this is about,’ Young says. ‘Because to me, it’s not about huge, dramatic moves or spectacular, Walt Disney stuff. It’s simple things. And that’s all we can do.’ The result of such conversations is invariably a deeper understanding of homelessness, its causes and its solutions, and an impression that remains with people who encounter the event long after the event’s final games are played.
The impact on many of the player’s lives has been significant, finding homes and jobs is just the start. Some 97 per cent of HWC players report positive outcomes from their participation in the event. They find stable accommodation, employment, undertake study, and reconnect with family and friends when they return to their home countries. Digital media proves invaluable in this reintegration process and ongoing positive outcomes. Online content remains an accessible archive and powerful reminder of the event’s value. It also provides dynamic links to the friendships and support networks forged through the event—be it with other participants who have also experienced homelessness and marginalization, with HWC volunteers and staff or the general public. This network offers encouragement and empowerment to help participants improve their home-country situations.
Liverpool Football Club’s Bill Shankly famously said: “The socialism I believe in, is everybody working for the same goal and everybody having a share in the rewards. That’s how I see football, that’s how I see life.” The HWC embodies this philosophy, and in doing so counters the stigma traditionally attached to homelessness.
Like football, social media is a great leveler. When paired with the HWC, a common cause, they work together to achieve something rarely done for homelessness: it makes tackling this wicked problem engaging. Cheering the players on, whether from the stands or via social media, while simultaneously enjoying a fast-paced sporting event, makes addressing this larger issue far less arduous, not insurmountable. As research demonstrates, people who engage with causes online are likely to engage with them offline too (Georgetown University Center for Social Impact Communication and Ogilvy Public Relations 2013). Over the HWC’s history, digital media has gone from being new and undetermined to integral and ubiquitous. With platforms such as Facebook continually adding spreadable, drillable elements to augment reach and effect, the HWC’s impact through digital media is set to continue and grow.
A dozen different cities have already hosted, including Copenhagen, Cape Town, Rio de Janeiro, and Mexico City. It returned to Scotland in 2016, where in host city Glasgow it also inspired a brilliant and moving collection of short fiction, Home Ground, edited by Louise Welsh and Zoe Strachan (available for free). The community is gearing up and raising funds for Oslo. Teams are being announced in local street papers. It would be lovely if you could make it, but know that you can help just by checking your phone.
Georgetown University Center for Social Impact Communication and Ogilvy Public Relations. 2013. The Dynamics of Cause Engagement. Washington DC.
Jenkins, Henry, Sam Ford and Joshua Green. 2013. Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. New York: New York University Press.
Young, Mel. 2014. Author–Activist Interview.