21-year-old Oregon woman turns homeless life around with soccer

PORTLAND — At 21, things hadn't turned out like Aisling Rose O'Grady expected.

She was homeless and hungry.

She couldn't find a job, and she bounced between shelters trying to stay off the street.

And she desperately wanted to be independent. But it wasn't until an acquaintance told her to get help that she realized how far away that dream was.

That's when O'Grady reached out and things started to turn around. With the help of a program for homeless youth, things began to get better, but there also came a surprise:


On Sept. 19, seven months after she became homeless, O'Grady was scheduled to lace up with the U.S women's team in the Homeless World Cup in Rio de Janeiro. Taking the field at the event, which features 16 teams of homeless women from throughout the world playing "street soccer," would mark a nearly miraculous turnaround for a woman who, six months ago, was wandering the streets of Portland.

But now, the woman who doesn't seem to smile much, smiles when she talks about soccer.

"Just to be a part of it makes me feel pretty special," she said.

The competition's goal is to raise awareness of homelessness and to give players the dignity and confidence to get off the streets. A place that's now not so far out of reach for O'Grady since she started playing soccer.

O'Grady — whose first name is pronounced "Ashleen" — never imagined she'd be part of something like this. But, then again, she never thought she'd be homeless.

O'Grady came from a stable household. Her parents worked, they traveled, and she said she never felt in need.

But when she graduated from Molalla High School in 2007, problems began to mount. She lived with her parents in Mulino but couldn't hold down a job.

In February, an argument about money escalated into an altercation with her mom. O'Grady landed in jail for the night, charged with assault. She's now in a diversion program, but a court-mandated restraining order means she can't yet return home.

She moved to Portland, but finding a job was tougher than she expected. She stayed in warming shelters — little more than a room of cots — where she didn't feel safe.

What had always been a source of conflict with her parents, independence, was proving to be more difficult than she imagined.

That's when a family friend insisted she go to Outside In, a Portland-based program that helps young people get off the street. A month after leaving her home, O'Grady walked into Outside In.

"It's been humbling," she said.

Outside In isn't just a free bed and meal, explained Maureen Brennan, Outside In's clinical services administrator. It teaches the skills needed to stay off the streets, and it teaches sports to get active and social.

O'Grady found street soccer. At first it was something to do, but she had a knack for it.

Her coach, Erin Swenson, said she's "a very composed player. ... She plays with the guys, and she's really not afraid to get in there."

Street soccer is a streamlined version of field soccer. Teams play on walled-in courts about the size of a tennis court. Teams are also smaller, with four players, and games run 15 minutes.

After six months, O'Grady already looks like a natural. She moves with fierce determination that seems at odds with her shy and soft-spoken character.

The team practices twice a week. But O'Grady saved money by working for Outside In so she could also buy a soccer ball and practice on her own, too.

When O'Grady played in the national championships in Washington, D.C., last month, she started timid, but after a few games she was leading the team, her coach said.

O'Grady said playing made her feel special for the first time in a long time. Then, at the end of the competition, Street Soccer USA announced the roster for their national women's team.

O'Grady's name was called.

So she spent the last week in New York practicing with her new teammates, then left Sept. 17 for Brazil.

O'Grady has made a lot of progress, Brennan said, and soccer is one more success.

"Street soccer is just icing on the cake," Brennan said.

After Brazil, she'll move into Outside In's transitional housing. She'll have her own room, something she hasn't had since becoming homeless. She's still looking for work but says she's more confident.

"I just appreciate having someone so involved," she said. "It makes me feel like I have an opportunity to make something of my life."

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