Archives For street families

[Author’s Note: These events took place a few years prior to this writing, and I have attempted to recall the story as accurately and honestly as possible with the acknowledgment that certain specific details have faded in my memory, specifically concerning the amounts of time that had actually elapsed over the course of these events. Names and minor identifying details have been changed to protect privacy.]

“Help! Quick!”

We ran over as quickly as we could. Sprawled out in the ground, covered in mud was a young man who I knew as Kiley in the middle of what appeared to be a seizure. A girl stood over him, rolling him up onto his side as we approached. “Go find Bear,” she yelled in our direction. “Quick, go find Bear.”

I looked over at my companion who ran over with me, a short, pixyish girl who called herself Sprout. “Who’s Bear?” I asked her, silently hoping that whoever Bear was, he or she had emergency medical training. My cell phone was long dead, it was the middle of the night, and my car was many blocks away.

“Bear’s our shaman. She’s the only one who can make it stop.”

Sprout took off running, and I stayed in place there, frozen, the borders between reality and fantasy once again blurred beyond comprehension. I had overheard talk of seizures a few times over the past week, but like so much of what I had heard, I had initially taken it with a grain of salt, dismissing it as the exaggerated fantasy of attention-seeking youth. And yet, in what was rapidly becoming a noticeable pattern, at that moment the fantasy was all too real. As I stood there wondering where I could run for help, Sprout returned with another girl, one even younger and more pixyish than herself. Bear was barely five feet tall, wore a floor-length red coat, and carried herself with an authority that one wouldn’t expect from such a young, slight creature.

I stood there and watched as Bear crouched over Kiley, put her hand on his forehead, and started to chant in a low voice while waving her other hand up and down in a steady rhythm. After what seemed like only seconds, his seizures started to cease. She stood up, held her hands over him and shouted an indecipherable phrase, and before I knew it Kiley was sitting up and asking for water.

I looked at Sprout, incredulous. “What the hell was that?” I asked. “Is he epileptic?”

“Several people have had seizures over the past few weeks,” she replied. “Bear says that we’re under attack.”

“Under attack from whom?” I asked.

“Probably another street family, although I think it also might be the police. They hire psychics all the time, you know…”

I had learned very early on that trying to challenge such a belief was not only an exercise in frustration and futility, but that doing so quickly eroded the trust that had been built between us. Nonetheless it was often hard to bite my tongue. The idea that the local police department would hire psychics to afflict street kids with seizures was absolutely ludicrous as far as I was concerned. But until a few minutes before, the idea that a homeless teenage “shaman” could take away a street kid’s seizures through chanting would have seemed absurd to me as well, and I had just witnessed such a thing with my very own eyes. At that moment, anything seemed possible. I stayed silent and simply nodded.

“We have a protection ritual planned for tomorrow,” Sprout added. “We’re letting some of the others know.”

By “the others” Sprout was undoubtedly referring to members and/or heads of other street families, ones who they considered to be allies as opposed to foes. I nodded again, and excused myself to get some coffee. At that moment, I had an overwhelming need to step away and think.

The simple truth was that they were under attack, although the nature of that attack was overwhelmingly bureaucratic and systematic as opposed to the type of energetic warfare that Sprout was convinced of. Their presence was unwelcome wherever they went, and both law enforcement and the business community had taken many deliberate steps over the years in order to clear them from public space, none that have ever succeeded in the long-term. The tools and tactics changed regularly, but the constant oppression and harassment aimed towards this population had been apparent to me for years, and over that time it had become clear to me that this group and others like them were a poorly understood, harshly judged, and frequently targeted population that was literally fighting to survive in a community that openly declares their visibility to be “undesirable”.

Police clearing out street kids downtown [Photo Credit: Alley Valkyrie]

Police clearing out street kids downtown [Photo Credit: Alley Valkyrie]

Most people simply refer to them as “street kids” and they self-identify as such for the most part, although many of them are in their mid-to-late twenties, and a few even older than that. The youngest among them are in their mid-teens, although as a general rule every one of them insists that they are 18. Most of them are current or former teenage runaways, and some of them have lived on the streets of Eugene for many years. In Oregon running away from home is not illegal, and while police and social service agencies often attempt to reunite runaways with their parents whenever possible, very often these runaways have fled legitimately abusive or neglectful situations and returning home is not in their best interest. For better or for worse, and sound arguments can be made for both, teens who leave home are legally allowed to fend for themselves, and many of them prefer a dangerous and unstable life on the streets over the dangerous and unstable homes that they were raised in. As a result “street families” composed mostly of young runaways can be found throughout Oregon’s urban areas. Police are often quick to profile these street families as “gangs”, and while certain individuals within the street families sometimes engage in petty crime in order to survive, these groups are anything but criminal enterprises. The family is a source of protection and solidarity for its members in the face of legitimate oppression and danger and within the familial units that the street kids create; both love and power are cultivated, recognized and shared.

Initially brought together by their commonality as runaway, at-risk, or wayward youth, what became quickly evident upon spending time with this specific street family and has been echoed in my experiences with others is the way that they have bonded together and almost universally attached themselves to a strong and deliberate shared culture and nature-based belief system, one that I have come to refer to as “street paganism.” From the outside it is best described as a cobbling together of ideas and beliefs drawn from pop culture, fantasy novels, “Wicca 101” books, games such as “Magic The Gathering,” and aspects of the West Coast counter-cultural movement. All those influences are deeply intertwined with the many realities of street culture: scarcity, mental illness, social and behavioral disorders, a culture of substance abuse and self-medicating and the psychic toll that living in constant survival mode has on a person. Additionally the runaway youth factor introduces a whole other set of factors and challenges, namely the psychological scars from abuse and neglect combined with a lack of education and social skills.

All of these influences, tendencies, and identities converge to create a day-to-day worldview and functional reality that this street family operates within, a world that can either be interpreted as an elaborately dramatic and paranoid fantasy or a legitimate shadow reality operating right next to our own. At the beginning I had assumed it to be more of a fantasy than anything else, but I had come a long way rather quickly to a point where I absolutely could not deny or otherwise explain what I was experiencing alongside them other than to simply accept it for what it was. This was a world-within-a-world, one that I would have easily scoffed at in any other circumstance. Many of them self-identified as witches, mages, warlocks, or shamans, and such identities were not only a source of personal power, but were recognized as positions of power and authority within their communities, with those who do not identify as such usually granting an unwavering respect and deference towards those who do. They were untrained and undisciplined, headstrong and often reckless, and yet they seemingly created a whole that was not only greater than the sum of its parts, but also acted as protection and container for those parts.

I thought back to the seizure and what I had witnessed. I sure didn’t think that either the police nor any rival street families were engaged in psychic attack against this group, and I was also skeptical that Bear actually had the power and skill to simply stop another person from seizing through chanting and hand gestures. But what I did know for sure was that they weren’t just faking this scenario for my benefit. While I was doubtful that the seizures were of a solely physiological origin, what had just occurred before me was anything but an act. There were legitimate factors at play here and I couldn’t help but wonder if what I had witnessed was some sort of manifestation of the severe trauma and pain that Kiley and so many others are forced to suppress in order to function and survive in the day-to-day.

Street altar at a homeless camp [Photo Credit: Alley Valkyrie]

Street altar at a homeless camp [Photo Credit: Alley Valkyrie]

I did not witness the ritual that Sprout and Bear had planned for the next day, but when I returned later in the day I was assured that it had been successful and that they were safe from further attack for the time being. Sure enough the seizures tapered off, although the paranoia and obsession around the idea of being psychically targeted only seemed to strengthen as the seizures faded. The belief that they were under attack was nearly universal among them as was the idea that Bear was protecting them from an ugly fate.

I thought about my own understandings of how they were under “attack” by law enforcement and the business community in light of their own beliefs about the sources and nature of such attacks. It occurred to me that I had a language and framework for understanding the realities of their oppression that they themselves lacked. I understood these attacks through policies and procedures, by interpreting and constantly revisiting information that I’ve observed and gathered through years of my paying attention to local government and the business community.  The street kids, on the other hand, understood the attacks through their personal experiences with the attitudes and energies directed at them combined with the fears and fantasies of their peers. If I had walked through life in their shoes, I thought to myself, I would very likely obsessively perceive such experiences as a constant form of psychic attack as well.

Over the next few weeks, I paid attention to their many ideas and theories, analyzing and thinking through their day-to-day habits and rituals as though I was observing an established folk religion. I noticed immediately that the more I assumed and accepted their reality as synonymous with my own, the more I was able to understand and experience the power of their connection. Their loyalty and generosity towards each other was heart-breakingly beautiful and the importance and strength of their family as an energetic unit became more and more apparent to me as the days went on.

A “protection star” left on a street corner [Photo Credit: Alley Valkyrie]

A “protection star” left on a street corner [Photo Credit: Alley Valkyrie]

Some time later, I stopped by unexpectedly to drop off some fruit when I came across Kiley sprawled in the pathway, once again, in the midst of seizures. This time, I yelled for help. Two street kids ran over and I asked them if Bear was around. She was away, they told me. They did not know where she had gone, but she had been away for a few days. I looked around and saw a police car idling in a nearby parking lot. I told the kids to stay there and ran across the street. I spoke briefly with the officer and, within a minute or two, a team of paramedics pulled up and quickly approached Kiley who was still seizing on the ground, his friends kneeled over him. I ran over right behind them.

As I stood there watching, my thoughts were racing faster than ever. Was Kiley’s seizure somehow connected to Bear’s absence? If not, what was the trigger? Or was Kiley simply an epileptic? But if so, how to properly explain what I had witnessed a few weeks before?

Suddenly, one of the paramedics turned towards me, his eyes flashing with anger. “What kind of B.S. is this?” he asked me.

I stared at him, utterly confused.

“I can’t believe this crap. This kid’s faking it,” he continued. “I’ve been working this gig for nearly a decade. That’s no epileptic seizure.” He looked down at Kiley. “Get up,” he yelled. “Get up.”

I was speechless. I looked down at Kiley, writhing in the mud, his seizures slowing but not ceasing, and then back at the paramedic standing over him, yelling for him to get up. Once again, I had no idea what to think. At that moment, Kiley turned onto his other side and projectile vomited. His seizing stopped and he promptly fainted.

“Was he faking that too?” I asked.

The paramedic looked straight at me, and the anger in his eyes had turned to fear. “What kind of sorcery, what kind of trickery is this?” he asked. “Who are you? Do you know this kid?”

“I don’t know what it is,” I replied. “Who I am is none of your business. And yes, I know that kid, although not well. I came across him seizing on the ground, and I called for help. Nobody’s trying to trick you.” I nodded towards Kiley. While the one paramedic and I had been arguing, the other paramedic had revived Kiley and was checking his vital signs as he weakly sat upright.

Kiley declined the recommended trip to the hospital, and the paramedic who had revived Kiley strongly recommended that he see a doctor as soon as possible in order to be tested for epilepsy. The other paramedic was silent and I could tell by his expression and demeanor that his sense of reality had been thrown for as much of a loop as mine had been a few weeks earlier. Despite his behavior, I felt strongly empathetic toward him in that moment.

A few hours later, I sat down with Sprout to talk about the incident. “You don’t believe he was faking it, do you?” she asked me.

“No,” I replied, “but that doesn’t necessarily answer anything for me, either. I’m never quite sure what I believe anymore. As of late I feel like I’m stuck in a fantasy novel and I’m not sure which way is up.”

“Which novel?” she asked.

“Sometimes you all remind me of ‘the Lost Boys,’ other times I think of Lord of the Flies, and when I’m in these situations I often feel like the main character in Neverwhere or something similar.”

She looked over at me. I could tell by her silence that she did not recognize any of my references and yet it was obvious to me that she understood exactly what I was trying to express nonetheless.

“Well, if I put that all together, we’re the Lost Lords of Neverwhere.” she finally said to me. “That sounds like the name of a good novel. That sounds tough.”

Walking home, I thought about Bear and Kiley, whom I immediately realized would be etched in my mind forevermore as the Lost Lords of Neverwhere. It sounded tough, yes, but I hoped that besides feeling tough, this group of street kids also realized that they were not nearly as lost as so many people think they were. Their perspectives, ideas, and cultural norms are lost on most, they are lost without a place in our present society, and some of them have lost their way as a consequence of the lives they have been forced into, but overall they are anything but lost. Overall, it is what they have created and actualized within their own world, their own Neverwhere, that speaks loudest of all to me. And while I still cannot explain the specific whys behind teenage shamans and mysterious seizures, over time the experience has demonstrated a value far beyond what would be gained with the discovery of any definitive answer. Their ability to create their own reality, for better or for worse, gives me hope that some of them will one day be able to create their own proper place in the world on their own terms. In the meantime, whenever I think of the Lost Lords of Neverwhere, I am reminded that the presence of mystery does not always deliberately obscure the answer, and yet often teaches meaningful lessons that the simple answers simply can’t.