Arsenal’s link with young homeless gets results on and off the pitch

It’s apparent, very quickly, that I have made a calamitous footwear error. Standing on the edges of an artificial-turf indoor football pitch at Arsenal’s stadium complex in north London, I vainly attempt to kick a ball at the assembled huddle of Centrepoint residents, all wearing sensible kit and studded boots, while I’ve plumped for knee-high suede boots. The ball veers away wildly and one of the 24 young people jogs to retrieve it.

The group are here, a few days before Christmas, for their final session of a scheme that melds employability and confidence training with sport and exercise. Once a week, for two months, the young women and men come to Arsenal in the kit provided, spending half the session in a small room, discussing interview techniques, tactics for searching for work, application skills, and building confidence. Craig, one of three trainers working with the group, says: “You can look at a benchpress and say I’m going to lift 200kg, but you’ve got to start somewhere.” Confidence is particularly important: many Centrepoint residents have been through traumatic periods, often repeatedly, and treated with disdain and even violence. Even if their personal circumstances weren’t already confidence destroying, the stigma around homelessness is endemic and can become self-defeating.

Mixing jobs talk with football helps with this: as well the health benefits, even the most shy members of the group open up and shout suggestions in the complex team games on the pitch. Without teamwork and talking together their action plans to win can never be realised: being confident enough to talk to strangers is difficult for lots of young homeless people – and a job interview is precisely that, with particularly high stakes.

Talisha became homeless after a breakdown in the relationship with her mother. After six months of sleeping on friends’ sofas, she found Centrepoint, the youth homeless charity and a beneficiary of the 2017 Guardian and Observer charity appeal. After completing the Arsenal training course earlier in the year, she represented England at the Homeless World Cup in Oslo. “Last year I was sheepish, but it brought me out of my shell. Now I talk to anyone,” she says, taking a break from training. “I learn new things off them, they learn new things off me.” All participants point out one of the main things is how much people share about their experiences, and how this bolsters their confidence when speaking to new people. Craig explains that for those who go on to compete in the international competitions, there’s often a lot of press attention, which can be overwhelming – they use the opportunity to do workshops on resilience, to help them consider what they can learn from such situations, and how they can use new skills to overcome problems in later life.

While the course may only be eight weeks, the work between Centrepoint and Arsenal continues. All of those attending are looking for work, and Arsenal’s links with the local economy are huge: if people want to work in retailing, catering, event planning or anything around the stadium, the trainers know where to point them. But they’re realistic: when someone inevitably suggests they’d like to coach a Premier League team, the coaches point out there are very few coaching jobs in the country at all, and those that do exist are both unbelievably competitive, and take years of work to attain. Several want to look for jobs in security, and the football club and Centrepoint have the contacts and resources to ensure they can get the accredited badge for such work.

But, as Craig tells the group, “if you try something and don’t like it, we won’t force you to continue down that route. That’s not going to help you.” One of the women tells me she secured a few paid trial shifts in a shop, then realised she was completely unsuited to retailing. She is now looking into youth work as a possible career path, something she hadn’t considered before coming to Arsenal and observing how the trainers helped people, but also clearly enjoyed their jobs deeply.

Aidan became homeless at 20, fleeing a forced marriage. She came to Centrepoint after sofa-surfing for five months. “All the workshops have a theme: teamwork, responsibility, communication. But meeting new people is a big thing, becoming more confident. I want to go into film now,” she tells me. She is currently at college completing an animation and film-making course.

Savannah says: “My big fear at the beginning was that there were loads of boys. But I just got on with it, and worked to overcome my shyness. I usually avoid big groups, but it’s made me more confident.”

Charlie was reluctant to join the scheme at first: “The first fear for me was that I was told it was mandatory to wear an Arsenal top.” As an ardent Spurs fan, he’s overcome that barrier by wearing the rival team’s socks for the training session. “We work on team-work, communication skills, and I was pretty confident before but it definitely does improve your confidence, and it’s different. I’m talking about coaching and other work with youth groups now. I know the ins and outs of gangs, so I can use that knowledge for good.” Charlie clearly admires the coaches working with Centrepoint and Arsenal and wants to return the favour: throughout the team games, he encourages and chats to a woman who doesn’t seem keen to participate, but is fully involved by the end, with his gentle prodding.

On completion of the course, each member is individually applauded as they collect their certificate, and an A4-size portrait of themselves taken by the official Arsenal team photographer. The photos are transformative, atmospheric and really make the men and women look fantastic. Most people pretend not to be bowled over, but furtively gaze at them in awe when they think eyes are elsewhere.

But there’s one more perk: a tour of the stadium. Through the directors’ box, the changing rooms, the players’ entrance and the stands, they ask questions and take selfies and videos of themselves next to statues and team shirts. The laughter and enthusiasm is infectious: the scheme may have ended now, but they seem far happier, and have enjoyed being welcomed into places that would normally be closed to them.

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