Ho Bo Jungle

Back in the late eighties and early 90s I was employed by the University of Maryland to do research for the US Census Bureau, to help plan alternative methods of enumerating the homeless population in America. The mapping project was an attempt to develop strategies for eventual financial assistance based on the 1990 Census. It was a difficult and complex assignment that involved living on the streets for certain periods to learn how people use networks and resources to survive. Although we frequently hear terms such as 'housing shortage' and 'global downturn' and have become acutely aware of the trauma of war on returning soldiers, these things were less recognised even 20 years ago.

The poem was conceived early, but wasn’t completely written until several years later. I first performed this piece in Deptford, London, and have since performed it by invite in Prague and San Francisco, and all over England.

The poem recounts a historical adventure to discover the roots of homelessness in America, from the Civil War to the Great Depression, and a metaphorical journey weaving the folklore of homelessness into the tale of one man’s daily struggle on today's streets. The recurring images of tracks are metaphors for the path we follow to find ourselves, and refer to substance abuse, an unfortunate pattern of some people who are disenfranchised from the rest of society. I also use them as markers for passing time – the rhythm of the train as it clicks and clacks along the tracks - and in recognition of the importance the railroad had on America's growth.

The sketch of that archetypal figure, the Chaplinesque creation, is an intentional reference to our shared imagined history, the folklore of the traveller as tied to the celebrated tramp. However, there is also a present truth. Kerouac’s adventures of hopping freights and wandering minstrels who busk in railway yards mean little to the single mother of 3 with no home and no income; to her the mythology of the road is irrelevant and the global economic crisis a distant factor.

During the time I spent on this and other research projects as field anthropologist I got to know some phenomenal people and made some great friends. The individuals who worked ceaselessly to support the men and women who live out on the street inspired me to move more directly into this line of work, which I did for many years after the investigation had ended. Although I have now moved on, our activities had a lasting impact on many people, friends and co-workers as well as groups of individuals who assisted in gathering so much necessary, and at that time previously uncollected, data. I thank them all for the experience.