A young man rebounds from homelessness and drugs — with an assist from soccer

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This story is part of the SF Homeless Project, a collaboration of more than 70 media organizations reporting on homelessness.

SAN FRANCISCO — When Philip Jones first heard of Street Soccer USA, he wanted to play.

Program director Ben Anderson made a pitch for new players at the shelter where Philip was staying in 2014: Get some exercise, meet new people and see where things go from there. It sounded good.

SEE ALSO: What 6 survivors of homelessness want you to know

Philip tried to find the field for what felt like an hour. He became more desperate as he searched, and recalls "running around like a madman" through the streets of San Francisco. But he just couldn't find the field.

Problem: Philip was, in his own words, "high as shit" on crystal meth. Meth was his "drug of choice" when he was at his lowest. Living on the streets, selling narcotics, using them even more, stealing, sleeping wherever he could — "it got real dark," Philip says.

But that was 2014.

Eventually — not that day, but eventually — Philip found the game.

The 'untold story' of homelessness in San Francisco

A man outside his tent on Division Street in San Francisco in February 2016.

Image: Eric Risberg/AP

On a sunny, cool afternoon this June, Philip is at Margaret S. Hayward Playground in the city's Western Addition, wearing a gray Street Soccer hoodie, black baseball cap and Nike Huaraches. Along with three other Street Soccer staffers, he's coaching about a dozen kids through drills and scrimmages.

"Who wants to be goalie?" Philip asks.

Three hands shoot up. Three voices squeal, "Me!"

Hmm.

"Who wants to be goalie first?" Philip asks, this time with a smile.

Philip is 24 years old. He's tall, with dark brown skin, thick black eyebrows, black fuzz on his chin and dreads that hang to just below his ears. His voice is soft, but he speaks with confidence.

Philip is doing well now. He works for Street Soccer, and has a receptionist job too. He lives in housing for at-risk young people run through the Larkin Street Youth Services program, a nonprofit that provides services to homeless youth. He's been sober and on the straight and narrow for more than a year. He's also back in school.

Philip's story represents a very specific, sizable, segment of San Francisco's homeless population: Young people, and others who don't fit the most prevalent stereotypes.

Philip and Street Soccer colleagues work with youth in the Western Addition on a recent June afternoon.

Image: sam laird/mashable

More than 1,400 young people were on the street during a point-in-time census conducted by the 2015 San Francisco Homeless Count & Survey. A quarter of San Francisco's homeless population first becomes so between 18 and 24, according to the same survey, while the portion of the city's overall homeless population in that age range increased from 15 to 17% between 2013 and 2015.

Philip is young, and he's always had an eye for fashion. In other words, he doesn't fit the stereotype many have of the typical person who is homeless in San Francisco.

"We feel like that can be the untold story of homelessness," says Nora Brereton, associate director of At The Crossroads, a non-profit that aids homeless youth in the heart of the city. "People can be wearing nice clothes, out there hustling and selling drugs, or even working a full-time job — but additionally they're hungry and don't have a place to sleep.

"People tend to overlook someone who doesn't fit their perception of what a homeless person is, panhandling in a certain neighborhood."

At The Crossroads provides counseling to about 330 homeless youth per year and works with a total of more than 1,100 youth annually. It serves a diverse population that's approximately 60% African American, 18% white, 13% Latino and two-thirds male.

Philip's own descent into homelessness began with a case of consumer lust.

Into the darkness

Philip plays with kids at a Street Soccer program in the Western Addition.

Image: ben anderson/street soccer usa

Street Soccer isn't Philip's first contact with the sport. He played goalie as a kid, and was good enough to get recruited by a competitive team. Around fifth grade, he wanted to try other positions, but his coach insisted on keeping him in goal.

"So one day, I just sat down on the field and let the other team score goals," Philip says.

That was it for soccer — at least for many years.

Philip was raised in Oakland, then moved with his mom to Pacifica at age 10. She later married a man with some money and a son of his own. They all moved in together. Now there were summer vacations to Europe and Hawaii.

Philip says he'd always "had what I needed" as a kid, but there hadn't been many indulgences with a single mother working hard to provide. Suddenly, he lived with an older stepbrother who had the freshest sneakers and the coolest clothes — things Philip wanted.

In middle school, he sold pot for the first time. It provided spending money and more.

"My motive was to fit in," Philip says.

Meanwhile, he struggled with focus and social anxiety at school. At 17, he was arrested for the first time after stealing clothes from a store in Daly City. It only got worse from there. More stealing. More arrests. More — and harder — drugs.

Eventually, addiction.

People pick up their belongings after San Francisco officials clear out an encampment in 2013.

Image: AP Photo/San Francisco Examiner, Mike Koozmin

By age 21, Philip was living on the streets of San Francisco for days at a time. Then his mom kicked him out and street life became full time. The Tenderloin, the Mission District and Potrero Hill were his haunts.

"By then, my personal drug use was to the point where it was a bit darker — being in abandoned houses, smoking meth all day, it got real dark," Philip recalls in an interview at Street Soccer's Civic Center office. "I'd be in and out of jail."

Finding positive energy — and recovery

Philip, right, with Street Soccer USA's Rob Cann.

Image: Sam Laird/mashable

Seated at the Street Soccer office, Philip just finished his coaching shift in the Western Addition. After his original, failed and "high as shit" attempt to find the game in 2014, he credits Street Soccer as one of the pillars of his recovery.

"It's being able to dedicate myself to something and understand that if I put positive energy toward something, I'm going to get positive things back," he says.

Philip continued his descent into addiction after he failed to find the Street Soccer game for the first time. More and more drug and theft cases piled up against him. As it became obvious he was headed for serious jail time, if not death, Philip finally committed to rehabilitation for his drug addiction.

While in rehab, he'd sometimes walk past friends playing in Street Soccer-organized games. He'd watch for a couple minutes, yet be unable to join because of the conditions of his program. But he finished rehab, kicked his addiction and has been playing soccer ever since.

Street Soccer, a national nonprofit that's active in 16 cities, aims to use the sport as a way to help homeless adults, and homeless and at-risk youth. It runs rec leagues for working adults to help raise funding for its mission, while corporate partnerships provide more support. U.S. Men's National Team regular Chris Wondolowski will host a celebrity match when Street Soccer's 2016 Cup Series comes to San Francisco in July.

In San Francisco, Street Soccer serves about 75 homeless adults annually through service centers, job training and soccer leagues and practices, according to chief operating officer Rob Cann. About 90% of participants in Street Soccer's youth and adult programs are homeless when they join. Many — like Jimmy Flebotte — become success stories.

Team Street Soccer USA Bay Area (Philip is back row, third from the right).

Image: street soccer usa

Philip's is another success story. He's cultivated a structure and support network through Street Soccer, recently traveled to Philadelphia to play in the organization's National Cup and was part of a group whose concept won an app design contest.

Then there's the coaching job, which is new this summer.

But even a sunny, pleasant afternoon in the Western Addition shows the fragility of life in one of San Francisco's most overlooked and underserved neighborhoods.

A thin line in the Western Addition

As Philip and his Street Soccer colleagues work with kids on a pitch set up on an outdoor basketball court, other children laugh and play at a nearby play structure. On the other side of the play structure, past a driveway, a child and a woman play catch on the Margaret S. Hayward Playground baseball diamond.

A wheelchair ramp behind the backstop leads to the corner of Gough and Golden Gate. On that wheelchair ramp, about a half-dozen men with shopping carts lean seated against a wall. Two of the men begin shooting up.

This is life in the Western Addition, where the blurry line between poverty and homelessness exists far from the more famous corridors of Haight Street and Market Street. Sheryl Davis is director of Mo' Magic, a non-profit that works in the neighborhood and was founded by the San Francisco Public Defender's Office in 2004.

"Here's the deal — We can actually pinpoint and say about 40% of the people we work with would be considered homeless," Davis says. "But the actual numbers are much higher because people are using other people's addresses to get access to services even though they don't really have homes."

Kids test their skills through Street Soccer USA at Margaret Hayward Playground in the Western Addition.

Image: Sam Laird/Mashable

Cann, Street Soccer's chief operating officer, also sees firsthand the disconnect between the widespread concept of homelessness and its less-obvious manifestations. Many of the young people who join Street Soccer don't fit the idea people might have in their minds.

"They by and large don't have drug addictions and aren't mentally ill. They aren't sitting on Haight Street with their dogs," Cann says. "They do what is logical in my mind — spend the little money they have on looking like they aren't homeless. Buying a cellphone, things that make it so you think they're just another citizen when you pass them on the street."

It's a mindset Philip knows, too.

While homeless, he might not have had money, "but I'm wearing everything brand new. That was kinda my thing for a while."

But that was some time ago. That was before things reached their worst and before Philip began to turn his life around. This past Christmas brought a different kind of gift — a priceless gift.

A birthday, and a new set of challenges

Philip at the opening of Street Soccer USA Park earlier this year.

Image: thomas boyer/street soccer usa

Philip's mom divorced the man she married when Philip was young and moved to a new place a while back. But last Christmas she invited him to spend the night for the first time since kicking him out three years ago.

They didn't do much — mostly just hung around the house. But six months later, Philip is still visibly touched by the invitation and experience.

"There's been times when I've been in jail or on the streets and woken up and felt like I wanted to die," he says. "But on those days I'd always think, 'No matter what I do in this world, there's one person who's going to always love me. She might not agree with me, but she's going to love me.'"

Things are different now. Philip just finished his first semester of school in half a decade. He pulled down As in both his classes, which covered music and design. Sober more than a year, he tries to stay grounded in the day-to-day but also thinks about the future.

The young man who stole clothes as a teen now has notions of a career in fashion design or advertising, while making music on the side.

But uncertainty also looms.

Demonstrators flash their message during a protest for more aid for San Francisco's homeless population in February 2016.

Image: Eric Risberg/AP

When Philip turns 25 in November, he'll age out of the support system Larkin Street Youth Services provides. He's tracked down another program that helps subsidize rent for adults, and has managed to save a bit of money since getting off the street. But — particularly in San Francisco's tech industry-fueled and notoriously brutal rental market — that birthday is a bit daunting.

"I'm not gonna act like it doesn't stress me out," Philip says. "But I know there's something for me."

'The difference between a good day and a bad day'

Philip after a recent game at Street Soccer USA Park, located in San Francisco at 3rd Street and Terry Francois Blvd.

Image: Ben Anderson/Street soccer usa

As he considers his future at the Street Soccer office, the room Philip gets to live in until he turns 25 is just blocks away. He used to roam the surrounding streets while out of his mind on crystal meth. A mile west is Margaret Hayward playground, where he now teaches soccer to kids growing up amid precarious circumstances in a neighborhood that often goes ignored.

With moving pieces all around him and an uncertain future ahead, one thing Philip knows for sure is that he wants to stay involved with Street Soccer.

"It's one of those places where you can test, 'Hey, if I show up every day, what's going to happen? If I go above and beyond and cheer on my teammates, what's gonna happen?'" he says. "It helps you refocus and reestablish yourself with positive things."

And the goalie who once staged a protest by letting the other team score? He plays midfield now, and has a lot more fun.

"There's not a day that goes by that's perfect," Philip says. "But understanding that I have the ability to get the support that is going to help me get through is the main thing I had to overcome with being on the street. It's the difference between a good day and a bad day."

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