- 25 Feb 20
In 2017, director Daniel F. Holmes documented Irish participation in the Homeless World Cup in Oslo. His new film, Street Leagues, looks at the profound effect the titular organisation has had on members of our homeless population.
Daniel F. Holmes is worried that he sounds patronising. I don’t think he does, but then again, we’re sitting in an office building discussing homelessness, something neither of us has ever experienced.
Holmes, a writer-director from Chicago, came to Ireland in 2011 to work on the award-winning, Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn-directed Good Vibrations. The fledgling director is best known, however, for 2018’s Dive, a pre-Repeal era work of fiction, about a teenager struggling with her decision to have an abortion.
Holmes will premiere his latest documentary, Street Leagues, at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival. The film opens with a sobering statistic: “There are currently 10,300 homeless people in Ireland.” As we talk, Holmes shakes his head in exasperation. “That was two-and-a-half years ago. It’s only gotten worse since,” he laments. He’s not wrong. According to Focus Ireland, 10,514 people were reported homeless or waiting on emergency housing, in November 2019.
Street Leagues deftly captures the intensity of Ireland’s homelessness crisis. It also humanises a group of people who are so often overlooked, literally and metaphorically. “People who aren’t directly affected by those experiences tend to tune them out,” Holmes says. “One of the biggest misconceptions, especially with regards to homelessness, is that it’s a choice. Or that they made mistakes that got them to this point. This film shows that they’re products of their environment. They grew up in situations that made it difficult to build a life.”
It was Matthew Toman, the founder of Bankhouse Productions, who came up with the idea of documenting the Homeless Street Leagues, and to follow the Irish team to the Homeless World Cup finals in Oslo. “It’s hard to truly grasp the power of it at first,” Holmes says. “You’re swept up by the electricity of the whole experience. Once I was there, I felt that no matter what it took, we needed to make this project.” At one point, he doubted that the film would ever see the light of day. “It’s entirely self-funded,” he notes. “I was essentially a one-man crew. I had to be everywhere and nowhere.”
This required a balancing act on his part. “The last thing I wanted to do was affect the experience for the players, so that meant trying to develop real relationships with them individually.” It’s an approach Holmes hadn’t tried before. “When I was doing the interviews and they were giving me these incredible testimonies of what they had been through, it was really powerful for me on a personal level. I’m much more motivated now, to pursue other projects that can somehow make an impact.”
Struggle And Conflict
One of the more remarkable aspects of Street Leagues is that it captures the lasting impact the Homeless World Cup tournament has on the players themselves. “It’s not the end-all, be-all,” Holmes says, “but this is the first step to turning their lives around. It gives them a platform to show to the world – and more importantly, themselves – that they’re capable of achieving something great. But at the end of the day, it’s all about keeping that momentum going, in their personal lives and their careers, trying to find new ways to excel.”
The programme has an incredibly high success rate. Almost all of the players followed in the documentary are back in school, have full-time jobs, forge lasting relationships with one another, and reconnect with family. “We knew we had to go beyond the tournament to see where their lives were taking them,” says Holmes. “The ripple effect of that experience goes well beyond the competition.” Was he nervous about people relapsing? “To be completely honest, that’s part of the challenge the Street Leagues are up against. They don’t really have an aftercare programme set up, because they barely have enough funding to get their programme off the ground and take their players every year.”
It’s a brutal catch-22, one that cannot be solved even by a celebrity endorsement from the likes of Colin Farrell, who is an ambassador for the team. “I’m hoping the film raises awareness,” continues Holmes, “so that they can get the aftercare programme in place. But some players can’t quite adjust to reality again when they’re off the back of that high. If they aren’t able to make that transition, take these lessons and apply them to their personal life, the resources aren’t in place to help them through that.”
Jerseys With Names
Christine played with the Irish women’s team in Oslo. I have been told that her experience is more sensitive than most, but it turns out that she she has no inhibitions at all. “I don’t mind telling my story,” she says, taking a deep breath, “because if it gives someone hope, that’s really good.” Christine lost her father to suicide at the age of three. A recovering addict, she had to battle an addiction even after the Street Leagues team returned from Norway. She felt so low, in the past, that she attempted to take her own life once or twice. “I didn’t want to live the life I was living,” she explains. “The suicide attempts were failed, and I remember waking up and saying ‘What am I still doing here? I can’t even get this right’.”
When she was at the Homeless World Cup, she wasn’t sure she’d have a bed to sleep in on her return. “When we came back from Oslo, it wasn’t all good for me,” she recalls. “I was getting worse in my addiction. I was still staying in hostels. Hostels these days” – she takes another deep breath, and speaks in a low voice – “it would be safer to stay out on the streets.”
But Christine wouldn’t have missed the Homeless World Cup for anything. “The experience was second to none,” she says with palpable pride. “The people we met over there, the atmosphere – I made friends that I’ll have for life. We still text each other. Even just getting our jerseys with our names on them, coming from what I was coming from, I can’t describe it…” She trails off.
“The feeling was self-importance. I was doing something that wasn’t negative. Do you know what I mean? It had nothing to do with drugs. Even in the hotel, it was grand because I knew where I was staying! I still have the jersey with my name on it.”
A New Life
It's clear that Christine's life has been divided into two distinct segments: before the Homeless World Cup, and after. When she came home from Oslo, Christine embarked on a gruelling 16-month treatment programme to get her substance abuse under control. “Sixteen months is a long time,” she says. “I knew nothing about it. The first two months, you’re not allowed visits, even from family. And I was coming off crack and heroin. The first three weeks, it was like I was living in a nightmare. It was horrendous. I had restless legs, I was sweating, couldn’t sleep, ringing my sister every other day.”
Before going into the treatment programme, Christine would not have been allowed to stay with her sister. “She had young kids. She couldn’t do it anymore, and I don’t blame her for one minute. I’m actually happy she did that for me,” she says. “If I wasn’t on the verge of losing literally everything, I probably wouldn’t have done anything about my addiction. And the reality is, today I definitely would have been dead, the way I was going. I came up to two years clean in November. I never thought I could do that. I’m happy that I’m clean and sober today. The relationship that I have with my sister and her four kids is amazing, and I am the best version of myself.”
The Homeless World Cup helped Christine reconnect with her nieces and nephews, for whom she is brimming with love. “If you could see these kids,” she says. “They’re cute. You just want to eat them. Time with my family is priceless, and they do love me.”
Christine might have had a rockier road to normality than most, but, largely due to her experience at the Homeless World Cup, she is now back in school and working full-time. “The Street Leagues,” she says, “lets the homeless know that no one out there is a hopeless case. If I can do it, anyone can. I’ve always said that. Yes, the road is hard to get your life back together, but everything happens for a reason, I believe that now. There’s a reason I’m still here today.”
• Street Leagues will premiere at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival on February 29th at 6pm. You can purchase tickets at diff.ie/films. The Irish Homeless Street Leagues are always looking for people to contribute. If you wish to support them in any way, please contact [email protected]