In the second year of my primary school it was announced that in PE, the boys would play football (soccer to our American Friends) and the girls would play netball. To my mind, football was by far the better game and who wants to play crappy old netball with the girls? I told my teacher that I would be playing football with the boys – he told me I wouldn’t.
Determined to buck gender stereotyping, I turned up for PE with a pair of football boots and socks in my kitbag. I was fortunate that I had an elder brother so I had access to his hand-me-downs. I played with the boys for the rest of the year and the lasting legacy of this time is that I am one of few women of my age who can kick the football back into the game if it comes my way during a walk in the park.
Even aged 9, I had established where the power was. I wanted to play football with the boys because it was yet another in a long line of things the boys did that was framed as “better”. Football was on TV all the time and footballers were celebrities. Netball was never on TV. The Lightening Seeds song line “30 years of hurt” refers to the years since the men’s team won the world cup and I have felt this pain too. However, the song doesn’t refer to the decades of hurt experienced by women excluded from professional football.
The Lionesses’ victory meant a great deal to me. Their amazing success throughout the Euros 2022 is a wonderful thing in its own right. It also brings women’s sport into the spotlight and begs very obvious questions about why it wasn’t like this in the first place. I don’t even know what the viewing figures were last night but I’m guessing “very high”. Profiles and careers will build from this. The victory of the Lionesses highlights that if you want to be treated as more of an equal, you have to take people on at their own game in a big way.
As the CEO of a homeless charity, you may be wondering what on earth this has to do with my job.
It is this.
I remember the determination, along with the convenient access to resources, that enabled me to join the boys on the football field. It was a leap of faith for me to assume that what I was asking for wasn’t weird or unreasonable. I have the gift of tenacity and I wanted to be treated the same as the people who seemed to be getting more of the opportunities and attention.
Most people who are homeless have experienced trauma, usually in childhood. When people experience trauma, they may come across as both weird and unreasonable. Tenacity may be read as anger and frustration. What people need is opportunities for support, attention and resources which will help them to get better. Unfortunately, the conditions of sleeping on the streets mean this can be incredibly difficult to line up. This includes “being quite hard to find”. When people are rough sleeping, they often don’t have an address to send letters to. It can be hard to charge their mobile phone to receive texts about appointments. Rough sleepers may not know what time, or even what day it is so attending an appointment can be pretty challenging. More profoundly, many people sleeping rough self-medicate with alcohol and drugs available on the streets such as heroin. It’s tricky to get a mental health assessment when you are high. It’s hard to get into addiction treatment if you have a mental health condition.
40 years ago, my expectation that I could play football with the boys was considered at best charmingly eccentric. The victory by the Lionesses yesterday is incredibly joyful for me in its own right, but also it feels like something of a vindication of the actions of a 9-year-old me. Is it charmingly eccentric to expect people sleeping rough to get treatment? It is so obviously an enormous problem. Let’s not wait 40 years to make progress with people who are profoundly traumatised and unwell on our streets.
If we want to see fewer people sleeping rough, they need a place to live and mental health and addiction support right now.
-Pam Orchard, CEO of The Connection