‘Making a better person, not just a better player’
John Regler took time out from his day job in 2009 to volunteer at the Homeless World Cup in Milan. The experience inspired him and, nine years on, he is using football to offer a lifeline to some of society’s most vulnerable people.
What began as an informal weekly kickabout with a group of men from hostels in Oxford is gradually building into a global movement. Streets Revolution has spread to Bicester and Bournemouth as well as communities in Ghana, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. The West Midlands and Germany are next on the hit list.
“The needs are slightly different in each location, but the method is exactly the same,” says Regler. “The reason that guys come to our sessions are the same, whether they’re in Oxford or Ghana. They are not in work, they love football and they want a sense of identity.”
Participants’ circumstances vary. Many are homeless or living in temporary accommodation. Often they are drug users, have mental health issues, criminal records and complex needs. A weekly game of football is a welcoming, solid and inclusive environment, and a respite from their tough existences.
The focus is on wellbeing and delivering sport at the required pace of the individual. That consists mostly of football, but also walking football for over-60s (called the ‘SR Strollers’) and netball.
Regler explains: “Our approach is to acknowledge our participants’ offending history or risk of offending without the need to target or question these behaviours or experiences. We have an ethos of not ‘labelling’ individuals based on their histories, as we focus purely on the sport.”
Each Streets Revolution project is totally volunteer-led and starts with a very informal engagement method. It involves spending time in local hostels, getting to know potential new recruits and contacting local support workers and organisations who have clients that may be interested in coming along, particularly those who are not participating in physical activity.
In Oxford, Regler’s network of local players and partners is now well-established. He has many individuals and agencies to whom he can refer his participants if they are ready and willing to be given support with issues such as housing, mental health issues, employment, criminal justice or drug or alcohol misuse.
Many have had negative experiences of ‘authority’ and, for them, the companionship and physical activity alone are beneficial. Sometimes it can take years for enough trust and confidence to build before an individual is ready to accept further help.
“Sport gives them something positive to look forward to and, most importantly, it allows you to build up a relationship,” says Regler.
“They get to know and trust you, so when you signpost them elsewhere, they know that your advice comes from a place of compassion and care for their wellbeing.
“Because of that relationship you’ve built up, they will listen. You’re not selling anything; you’re just saying ‘If I were you, I’d consider this…’ We can’t guarantee they will act upon it; we just make sure they are informed.”
Regler references the Alliance of Sport’s Theory of Change in explaining his players’ readiness to improve their individual circumstances.
Streets Revolution have had some amazing success stories, but some who attend are low down on the scale of being ready to engage in any kind of structured personal development. Therefore, what constitutes ‘progress’ is unique to each individual.
“We’ve got lads who have been with us for years and some might ask why they haven’t moved on by now,” says Regler. “But in that time I’ve seen them grow as a person. Their level of maturity now, compared to where they were at the beginning, means they are better citizens and more engaged with the community, more aware of their personal choices and responsibilities, and I define that as a success.”
As well as a weekly match, teams enter local and national tournaments, including the annual Social Inclusion Cup, in which local support organisations, police and PCSOs also play. It is great for breaking down traditional barriers and forging trust and familiarity.
“Our players are often the sort of individuals who the police would cross over the road to enquire what they were up to,” explains Regler. “But now the police will approach them and ask ‘How’s football going?'”
By building these local networks – and tapping into pre-existing ones – Regler is gradually building a social franchise, or what he calls a Streets Revolution “global family”. It enables him now to apply to national as well as local funding sources. The expression the CEO uses is “working locally, thinking globally”.
He concludes: “It doesn’t matter where it is; the process and mindset are the same. You’re using local knowledge and understanding of that community to be able to engage with these people on an individual, needs-led basis.”
Adrian turned up to his first session with anger issues, a negative reputation and a long history with many homeless services. He was a known drug user, displayed complex anti-social behaviour and was persistently offending. His family are all substance addicts.
Adrian and Streets Revolution’s relationship grew organically, riding his ebbs and flows through football, talking and consistently reviewing his life. Jon Regler took Adrian to meetings, events and into the very heart of the ‘SR Family’. The relationship saw Adrian through many negative situations. He got fit and developed his ability to integrate safely into the community.
Whilst volunteering for SR, he applied for various courses and managed to extricate himself from his former, negative lifestyle. He secured employment outside the Oxford area and is now allowed access to his children. He remains healthy and active.
When Adrian first arrived, he was only just surviving. With time, support and dedication from himself and the SR family, he is now thriving. Adrian epitomises the Streets Revolution mission: “We are trying to change the world, one person at a time.”
The Alliance of Sport would like to thank Streets Revolution for being part of our Ministry of Justice Review of Sport in Youth Justice.