Two groups of young men from opposite sides of the Atlantic are
chanting the names of their respective inner city districts. We're
in downtown Los Angeles, the city with the largest homelessness
problem in America in a centre for the transitional homeless called
the Dome Village. The two sets of men have just finished a cricket
match. No one is quite sure what is happening here but it s nothing
if not an extraordinary scene.
One set of men is from Bristol. They are the Easton Cowboys Cricket
team. You might recall reading about the footballing end of their
operation in the Big Issue South West last year when they became
the first Western side to tour the Zapatista held areas of Mexico.
And the others? They are a group of inner city youths and homeless
men called the Compton Homies. The finest and in fact only cricket
side from one the most notorious districts in the world. A neighbourhood
known for it's gangs, guns and gangster rap, in that order. But
cricket? How the fuck did this most genteel of English games end
up being played here of all places? The answer stands at the front,
leading the cheering, grinning and giving bear hugs to the emotional
Cowboys. At 6 ft 4, resplendent in his slightly greying dreads and
shades, Ted Hayes oozes charisma.
Two days earlier and Ted is explaining how all this came to pass
at his office at the Dome Village. One half street politician to
sporting evangelist, he is a fascinating mix, with the moral certainty
you expect from an American but with a definite dash of English
gent in there too. Ted knew nothing about cricket until he was asked
to make up the numbers for an English ex pat side from Beverley
Hills (his partner Katy Haber, works in the film industry). "I
had heard the phrase 'this or that is not cricket', but the word
was not part of my vocabulary other than as a grasshopper."
Ted returned bitten by the cricketing bug and initially formed
a team from the homeless men at The Dome Village called The Justiceville
Krickets. The next step was to take his enthusiasm to the inner
cities. "A friend of mine suggested that I try Compton first.
He knew people who could get the word through the school systems.
And that is what we did - we held cricket workshops and from there
we drew the core of what we now call the Homies."
The team that lines up against the Cowboys the next day in a two
day test match are a mixed bunch - divided between Latino and black
kids, mostly around school age and older homeless men from the Dome
Village. There's still a surreal edge to proceedings. How on Earth
does a limey game for snobs appeal to a street sussed activist like
this and to a bunch of kids who look as if they'd be more at home
slam dunkin' round their local block basketball court? "It's
the etiquette, the discipline," Ted beams. "The challenge
of going through a rites of passage while playing the game. Cricket
if played properly can improve your life and extend your life. It
can keep you out of trouble and make you a better citizen. Cricket
can literally save your life."
In Ted's eyes cricket offers a return to the old fashioned values
of restraint, honour and discipline that are sadly lacking in other
American sports. The young Homies are in his own words "mainly
taggers". Some have actual gang experience, others were going
down that road.
Others like Chester Ward (32) had just got out of jail for drug
offences when they were introduced to Ted and cricket. "I didn't
even know what cricket was. But I started enjoying it. I like the
exercise and the running. It also gives me a chance to work with
the younger Homies. You see them hanging out in on the streets of
Compton the way I used to do. I talk to them and tell them to stay
focussed so they won t end up in jail like me."
Ricardo Silgado, at 18, one of those younger Homies leans over
and pitches in his two pen'orth about their English visitors. "Hey,
they're real good, they've got some good bowlers." Ricardo
got involved through one of the coaching clinics at his school.
"I like this more than baseball, it's more fun, more exciting.
A little bit slower, but more fun. Sometimes in Compton when we're
practising they just look at us like we're weird or something. But
some people come and cheer for us. They know we re doing something
good. We're not out there on the streets no more."
Meanwhile back at the Dome Village, the first day's play complete
Ted outlines his twin objectives. He has a dream of seeing cricket
replace baseball as America's premier bat and ball sport. But is
it realistic for an impatient lot like the Americans to fall for
a game that even the most patriotic Englishman would admit gets
a bit tedious at times? "Absolutely," he replies without
hesitation. "Given the media, the movie that is being made
about us and the meteoric rise of the Homies. The key is corporate
sponsorship, PR and certain investment. Yeah, ten, fifteen years
easy! We're going to be attractive to TV because cricket is so much
more of a global market. After every over you can have a commercial
or goodwill message from a non profit making organisation to talk
about social issues."
Which feeds into Ted's other dream to expand the Dome Village into
other cities and the adoption of a federal plan to house all the
nation's street homeless within ten years. The Village itself he
founded back in 1993. Set in the heart of downtown LA right under
the nose of corporate America it's has accommodation for 24 people
in 20 omni-sphered domes. Eight are community use and feature a
kitchen, office, community room and computer centre and other eight
are partitioned off so residents have their own living space. If
what the residents say is anything to go by then it leaves LA s
other provision for the homeless looking distinctly shabby.
Elzie Alexander has been living here for just five weeks. He is
an aspiring stand up comedian who came down to LA from Ohio to further
his career but found himself on the streets. In between trying out
his act on the Cowboys he has nothing but praise for Ted's concept:
"It's the best. They are genuinely concerned about helping
you succeed in whatever you endeavour. Where as a typical homeless
organisation has no interest in you becoming anything but homeless.
They get a government subsidy for supplying services so it s in
their interests to keep people in a state of homelessness."
"Here they give you the basics - a mailing address, a contact
telephone number, access to the Internet if you're a computer person,
shower facilities. They may seem like simple things. But you could
have a PhD yet if you're not clean you can't get a job at Burger
The future for LA's estimated 220,000 street homeless hangs in
the balance. Some districts of the city are enforcing a zero tolerance
policy, whereas those on the streets are simply turfed out in some
districts but not in others. The result is ghettoisation, with the
epicentre being the heart of downtown LA itself. "Laws are
being enforced against people who are street homeless, codes of
health and safety which means nine times out of ten they will be
arrested," says Ted. What you see there is America imploding
in on itself."
That is the bad news. But for the Easton Cowboys the trip has been
an enormous success, the match ended in a draw. Ted presents them
with a pair of graffiti-ed wicket keeper pads, captain Duncan Brewood
seems overwhelmed with emotion and promises are made to invite Compton
over to Bristol next year.Then to top it all, Theo and Isaac, two
of the Homies top batsmen get up to do their party piece in front
of the cheering crowd, their 'Hip hop cricket rap' -
From Bullets to Balls,
From Gats to Bats,
From the streets of concrete to the grass and mats,
That's cricket (that's cricket)
That's cricket (that's cricket)...
After the flood of emotion has abated Ted promises to take the team
on a tour of downtown LA, to the streets where he had been working
for a decade and a half. "You won't believe you eyes, I tell
you..." he promises.
He wasn't wrong. The atmosphere in the cars amongst the Cowboys
changes from cheery bonhomie to something else entirely. It is a
truly sobering sight - street after street of men, women and children,
mostly black, sleeping, huddling or just hanging round their shelters
- mats in doorways, cardboard boxes and tents. Row upon row of tents
which, gives the district the look of some dimly lit inner city
Glastonbury. Meanwhile just blocks away are the head offices of
some of the richest corporations on Planet Earth. I begin to get
a feeling of sickness in the pit of my stomach. Just then a middle
aged man on a bicycle rides past us. Spying our convoy and probably
taking us for cops he shouts "can someone tell me what the
fuck is really happening?"
No one else has put it better.