Lagarde (back row, red shirt) poses with his first team, which made it to the final in 2010 despite half the group being first-time soccer players.
Antoine Lagarde is bipolar. When he was roaming the streets and drinking heavily, he suffered from severe symptoms. But during a lengthy recovery, he rediscovered a part of himself that was nearly lost to the disorder—his love for soccer. On June 22, in front of the Ferry Building, Lagarde will lead a team of homeless San Franciscans who face similar struggles, into Street Soccer USA's inagural West Coast Cup.
Growing up in France, Lagarde wanted to be a professional footballer. But he realized at a young age that it wasn't in the cards, so Lagarde decided to focus on his studies. While attending Northwestern University in Chicago, Lagarde had his first bipolar episode. He dropped out, came back to San Francisco (where he had attended high school), and had a second attack. Then he discovered Street Soccer USA.
Twenty cities across the country have Street Soccer USA programs, which bring together homeless men and women in a sport it believes can have impact much more far-reaching than a win, loss, or draw. Its mission is to use a community platform to promote life skills and ultimately help its participants attain education, employment, and housing.
"Whenever I tell people I'm bipolar now, they can't believe it," Lagarde says. "I'm smiling every day. I'm a happy person who is looking to change that stereotype."
Before becoming a coach, Lagarde was one of eight Street Soccer players selected to play on the U.S. National Team at the "Homeless World Cup" in Milan in 2009 and felt how much the program was changing him and his teammates. "It was a time when I could just clear my head for a couple hours," Lagarde says. "It was a vacation from anxiety."
Rob Cann, one of the creators of Street Soccer, has been trying to create a safe space for people like Lagarde to improve their self-image. "A big part of it is about the identity," Cann says. "When you're homeless and isolated, it leads to depression and beating yourself up. People don't get away from that. Soccer gives people something they can build off of."
Lagarde's lowest moment came when his family intervened and put him in the mental hospital. He was lucky to have them—he says most people like him don't have that kind of support. And now his team will be competing in the West Coast Cup (with Street Soccer teams from Sacramento, Portland, Seattle and Los Angeles joining the San Francisco crew), in the public eye. It's a big deal, but it's not the culmination of Street Soccer.
Soccer, it turns out, is a thinly veiled cover for the social safety net. The program, which claims 75 percent of participants are either connected to jobs and housing, complete a rehab program, or further their education within a year of joining, has become a refuge for people who have nowhere else to turn. Recently, San Francisco had a women's team with six players on it. While they were playing, five of the six received their high school diplomas and the sixth ended up going to college. "They had role models in each other and coaches and other players who kept them on it," Lagarde says. "Otherwise they might have given up."
The program translates life skills into the language of soccer. For example, one of its lessons is known as "take the space." That is common terminology in soccer, meaning to create a passing lane for your teammate. But in Street Soccer, that also means not being afraid to take a chance and just "go for it" when the opportunity is in front of you. "Street Soccer creates tangible life and job skills," Cann says. "We don't want to just feel good about playing soccer together. We found that if we transfer those skills, people are more likely to be successful with their goals."
As a coach, Lagarde starts every practice by making those links. For example, he talks about control, both in terms of the ball and in terms of and how it applies to anger management or sobriety. Lagarde says, "Someone might say 'I'm not gonna be drinking anymore,' and then everyone asks them at the next practice how they've been doing and if they're still drinking."
In the eyes of many, Street Soccer has become a way to curb homelessness in a city that counts it among its biggest problems. "So often in parks, the story of our at-risk youths and vulnerable population involves unhealthy behavior," said San Francisco Recreation and Parks General Manager Phil Ginsburg. "Street Soccer gave us the chance to do something positive and promote sports, recreation, and healthy choices for all of us."
Nobody embodies that positivity better than Lagarde, who is now a college counselor and teacher at the San Francisco Conservation Corps. He says four players from his teams have been hired at Old Navy through intra-team networking, and that he uses his own knowledge of education to help teammates with their resumes and pass along job opportunities. Lagarde himself ended up graduating with a BA from UC Berkeley and a teacher's credential at SFSU.
"Being homeless doesn't mean you're a crack addict shouting weird stuff," Lagarde says. "The reality is people have been stuck in this system for so long and don't have an opportunity to get out. Playing soccer gives you an identity. When people play, they realize they are part of a bigger movement [...] We play soccer for change. To change our own lives."
You can get more information on San Francisco Street Soccer at their website, www.streetsoccerusa.org. The tournament runs from June 22-23 and all proceeds go towards teaching job and life skills.