Playing Through

Residents of Austin's ARCH traveled to Washington, D.C., to take part in the Homeless USA Cup

Playing Through
Photo by Thomas Hackett

Carlos Hamilton is 49 years old, and until last Thursday, he'd never been on an airplane. For the last 15 years, he had a good reason for that: He was incarcerated. Adjusting to his freedom hasn't been easy. Given his criminal record, jobs are hard to find. Family relations are strained. Presently, he resides at the ARCH – the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless on East Seventh. That's where he met Sabelyn Pussman, a textbook editor, soccer enthusiast, and ordained Presbyterian minister.

Pussman had previously served three rural churches in Louisiana. She realized, though, that there are perhaps better ways to minister her faith – such as getting homeless ex-cons like Hamilton playing soccer. Yes, soccer. Of course, she also leads a Bible study group at the ARCH, but it's on the soccer pitch that Pussman helps men and women like Hamilton the most. "Games – it doesn't have to be soccer – teach people life skills," she said after her squad's last practice before heading to Washington, D.C., to compete in the Homeless USA Cup. "It teaches people to be committed, to keep their head in the game, to be sociable, to be disciplined, to take responsibility for their actions. And, of course, off the field, we talk a lot about personal goals."

Pussman has no sentimental illusions about the power of sports to transform troubled lives. Since she started the soccer team last summer, holding practices every Monday at 4pm, dozens of guys have come and gone. They get arrested; they disappear. Many days she sat there alone. That makes sense, of course. Being homeless, one has other priorities. Like having a place to sleep or food to eat or a stable job or sense of safety or trusting relationships. According to Abraham Maslow's famous hierarchy of human needs pyramid, only when those more basic needs are being met can an individual attend to satisfying the longing for achievement and creative expression.

Pussman apparently operates under the assumption that Maslow has got his pyramid upside down. Sure, homeless men need a home. But just as urgently, they need to experience the joy and sense of togetherness that play provides. "Most of these men, they're depressed," she said. "There are resource centers, and those are important. But here's a place" – that is, the basement gym at St. David's Episcopal Church, where the team practices – "where they can just be happy. Where they can be free. Where they can run around and be giddy."

Or as Hamilton says, "The two hours I'm here every week are two hours I'm not on the street feeling sad."

In Washington, Hamilton and his three teammates (one guy never made the plane, another quit after they got there) had a disappointing showing. Playing eight 15-minute games, they only won one match. However, Tad Christie was named to the U.S. team and will be making the trip in December to Australia, to play in the Homeless World Cup. "I'm really proud of the guys," Pussman says. "And I think they're proud of themselves, too."

Please write Mr. Hackett at

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Austin Research Center for the Homeless, Carlos Hamilton, Sabelyn Pussman, Abraham Maslow

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