Political parties in the UK have tried different ways to tackle homelessness over the years. 

None until now had included mud, sweat and a rugby ball. The parliament’s rugby group Commons & Lords took the challenge to a pitch just outside London and confronted the Warriors Homeless Rugby Team (WHRT) on November 22.

WHRT is one of the growing number of initiatives that use sport to reintegrate homeless people back into society.

The fixture - first of its kind - ended in a 4-4 draw as the expertise and cohesion of the Commons & Lords was countered by the agility and speed of the WHRT. But both sides considered it a success.

Involvement in sport


Physical activity is known for having a positive impact on the wellbeing of people, according to Kate Wilkinson, senior lecturer at the sport department at Middlesex University.

In case of homelessness, research has shown that participating in sports encourages individuals to become more involved in other activities, for example skills development or training programmes. 

“[Organisations] can use sport as a vehicle to try and get homeless people to engage with the broader social objectives [of the shelter],” Wilkinson told Al Jazeera.

“Sport is supposed to build bridges and bring people together and that is what happened on the pitch,” the Commons & Lords’ captain Lord Addington told Al Jazeera.

For WHRT players, the match was the culmination of months of training and anticipation.

“It was hard work, but good fun,” said Dom Bennetto who joined the team a year ago after becoming homeless at 22. He reckons rugby could also help reduce the “stigma” associated to homelessness.

“These are normal people that, as a result of a bad decision or being at the wrong place at the wrong time, ended up homeless. They are not bad people. They have good hearts. They are always there to back you up.”

WHRT founder Darran Martin hopes the event will bring more visibility to the one-year-old initiative and inspire the setting up of similar ones.

“This is a team that other clubs and charities can create in their area as a mechanism to deliver social good,” Martin told Al Jazeera.

Football, the pioneer

By the end of 2016, Martin wants to create a network of at least 10 rugby teams dedicated to homeless people in the UK, following the example of football, which has been a pioneer in the field.

The Homeless Football Association (HFA), which was founded two years ago, now represents over 200 organisations. It also organises short-term training initiatives across the country in collaboration with Premier League teams including Manchester United.

Men and women joining the centres can train once a week for five weeks. In 2012, the association ran six training centres which were attended by 131 individuals. This more than doubled in 2013, when 269 players joined nine schemes.

Through those centres, the HFA selects the players that will represent England at the Homeless World Cup, a tournament that gathers homeless football squads from over 70 countries annually.

Eric Houghton played for the English team in the first edition of the Cup in 2003. He was 38 at the time. Six years later, he co-founded the Homeless Games, a two-day multi-sport event that is held in Liverpool every year.

The Homeless Games attracted over 250 people in its first edition five years ago [The Homeless Games]

“I wanted to do something similar to the Homeless World Cup,” he said. “But I thought some people don’t like football.

‘Why don’t you do something like the homeless Olympics?’ a friend said. I thought it was a good idea.”

Around 250 people from across the UK joined the first games in 2009, with the number growing to over 450 in the most recent edition in October.

Aside from a range of sports, the games also offer participants the opportunity to have a health check-up.

“I thought about what I needed when I was on the streets,” added Houghton. “So we brought in doctors, dentists, opticians and nurses.”

Female participation

Initiatives such as the Homeless Games, the HFA and WHRT are open to men and women, but they tend to attract more male players.

Homeless women might lack the confidence to practice sport alongside men, as a large number of them have been affected by domestic violence and abuse, according to Nicola Miller, an amateur runner who launched A Mile in Her Shoes in 2013.

The charity sets up running clubs for homeless women in London.

During a session participants run to a place near the shelter where they can play games and engage in other fitness activities.

Sport gives them an opportunity to feel that they do belong. To feel like they are worthy

Eric Houghton, Founder, the Homeless Games

“Running can be quite a solitary sport,” said Miller. “But we adapted it to make it more of a team activity.”

The runners are provided with shoes, trousers, tops, sport bras as well as snacks and wipes.

Beyond sport

Most of the women joining the sessions said running makes them feel happier, relaxed and, above all, more self-confident.

Similarly, all the players that joined the HFA’s training centres in 2013 reported an increase in confidence. Around 63% went on to pursue further education opportunities, 58% improved their housing condition and 29% found full-time employment within six months.

WHRT’s Bennetto found a job and accommodation within three months of joining the team. He still attends sessions regularly. He said the club has helped him get back on track. “It gave me more focus and more determination at whatever I tackle.”

Houghton hopes that attending the Homeless Games can be, for many, what participating in the Homeless World Cup was for him: a turning point.

“I used to drink. At the end, it took over and I lost everything. I ended up in a hostel. But then I got the opportunity to get involved in the tournament. Football became my crutch rather than the alcohol.

“Sport gives them an opportunity to feel that they do belong. To feel like they are worthy. It changed my life and I know it can change others’ too.”

Source: Al Jazeera