Homeless send-off

'Caps throw their support behind Canadian Homeless World Cup team

Canada’s Homeless World Cup team got a big send-off on Tuesday before a journey of a lifetime to Paris, France, and members of Vancouver Whitecaps FC were on hand to show their support.

The Homeless World Cup began in 2003, with a tournament in Graz, Austria, with the aim of giving homeless people worldwide a chance to reintegrate into society through sport.

Whitecaps F players Jay DeMerit, Bilal Duckett, Shea Salinas and Jeb Brovsky attended the sending off ceremony for Canada’s 2011 team to put their weight behind the initiative, which is changing lives.

“To see homelessness and how it affects all ages … there’s 54-year-olds on this team who are getting their lives back through this game,” midfielder Brovsky told MLSsoccer.com at a community centre in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, which is infamous for its poverty levels. “It’s inspiring and it shows you that you’re never too old to make a change.”

Peter Chow is a perfect example of what this tournament and homeless soccer initiatives can do for turning a life around.

Leading up to last year’s Homeless World Cup in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Chow was living in a homeless shelter in Vancouver following struggles with substance abuse and mental health issues. While staying at the shelter, he noticed a posting for a homeless soccer initiative run by the Portland Hotel Society and signed up, eventually getting the chance to represent Canada at last year’s tournament.

“It was surreal,” Chow said. “We had the entire city behind us, and it became a reality when we stepped on the pitch for our first game and got smoked by Ireland.

“My best memory was the last day, the finals between Brazil and Chile,” he added. “Just seeing the tears streaming down from all the players [was incredible]. Now, I’m passing the torch - a couple of the players I took under my wing made it this year, and I practice with them every week and keep their minds focused and clean, and let everything fall into place.”

Chow now has his own place and has been what he describes as “stable” for the past year. Chow credits the tournament and playing soccer multiple times a week for helping him get his life back on track.

"I'm not overwhelmed by stress anymore," Chow explained. "I take everything one day at a time. If I have any problems, the support network of people that I trust is vast. Every day, more people are showing up to lend a hand - it's awesome to know that all you have to do is be at the right place at the right time, and the sky's the limit."

Whitecaps FC, for their part, showed their encouragement for the team by practicing with Canada’s squad last week. The 'Caps men’s and women’s teams presented signed jerseys as mementos to Canada’s team at the send-off ceremony.

“I looked up to soccer players my whole life, and now that I’m in that position, I feel it’s part of my duty and role to talk to people and be a support to people,” Salinas said. “I get just as much out of it as they do.”

Salinas had a long chat with a member of the team, Hector Valle, on Tuesday evening. The two formed a bond after the practice last Wednesday after Valle complimented Salinas on his skill with the ball.

“I appreciated that these guys took time out of their free time to play with us,” Valle said. “I can’t tell you how good this feels like. They’re professionals - Salinas is an excellent player and I had a chance to speak with him. He encouraged me to keep doing what I’m doing.”

Canada’s team departs on Wednesday, and the 64-team tournament runs from August 21 to 28 beneath the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Martin MacMahon covers Vancouver Whitecaps FC for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter: @martinmacmahon