Just a few blocks away from Washington’s Capitol campus in Olympia you can find a street culture where young adults and teenagers live by their own rules – sometimes with tragic consequences.
An especially grisly murder last year revealed an underworld in Washington’s capital city that can sound almost like a scene from "Lord of the Flies."
A crime within the family
A blackberry bramble-covered trail leads to the scene of the crime. It’s a trash-strewn, former homeless camp along Interstate 5 in east Olympia. It’s here that last October a 17-year-old named Forest Snow Bailey – who went by the street name “Sonic” - was stabbed to death.
“They ended up in the end trying to hide what they did by burning the victim’s body in a barrel out here,” says Olympia Police Lt. Paul Lower.
Police found the burned remains and quickly arrested a prime suspect who was 19 at the time: Christopher Lee Harrison – known as “Skitzo” on the streets of Olympia. Two alleged accomplices, “Red” and “Discord,” were also arrested.
Jessica Alf was in drug rehab when she got the news. “I got a call saying that Skitzo has killed Sonic," she says. "And I flipped out.”
Alf – who goes by the street name “Joker” - knew both young men. For her, the murder felt like a crime within the family. “And it is. It’s a street family," she says. "We’re tight.”
Alf is a longtime client of Community Youth Services in Olympia where Charles Shelan is CEO. He says it’s common for runaways and other disaffected youth to replace the family they ran away from with a street family.
“They will normally call other people their brothers or their mother or their father, but they won’t be biologically related to them whatsoever," Shelan explains. "And sometimes that can be very positive. And sometimes that can be a disaster as well.”
On the streets of Washington’s capital city you can also find more formal alliances. Jessica Alf – “Joker” – is 22. She identifies herself as a Juggalo. That’s the name given to followers of the Detroit-based rap group Insane Clown Posse.
“We watch each other’s back, we are always with each other," she says. "I don’t know if you’ve heard on the street we say ‘whoop, whoop’ which means ‘I can.’”
"Forming their own society"
“These kids are living outside the bounds of what we would consider society, I guess,” says Patrick O’Connor, a public defender who represents the man accused of committing last fall’s homeless camp murder.
O’Connor won’t talk about this specific case, but he says over the years he’s defended dozens of young adults living on the streets of Olympia.
“What we’ve seen is that they in a way are forming their own society with a kind of a hierarchy of members where some people have some authority in a community to set rules and the younger members follow the rules.”
O’Connor allows it’s a little like the novel-turned-movie “Lord of the Flies”
It’s not just Olympia. Street youth are fixtures in small Northwest cities from Bellingham to Eugene to Ashland. In Olympia’s Thurston County more than a third of the homeless are 25 and under. That doesn’t count the young faces you see on the street during the day, but who couch surf at night.
"It’s just really easy to get by here"
Olympia especially seems to be a magnet for street youth. It’s a funky, liberal town - home to The Evergreen State College -- where alternative feels like the mainstream. There’s also a myth about Olympia’s artesian water fountain downtown -- if you drink from it, you’ll never leave Olympia.
“It’s the water that’s what it is, it’s the artesian well water. I blame it on that,” says James, a 22-year-old graffiti artist from Tillamook, Oregon. I found him in a graffiti-covered alleyway less than a mile from the state Capitol.
When I pressed James about why he was really here, he offered a different answer.
“I feel like it’s just really easy to get by here with no struggle," he says. "We’ve got places that give us food, clothing when we need it, shelter if we really do need it, there’s places where you can go. There’s ordinances where you can’t sit on the streets, but there’s way to abide by that where you don’t get bothered.”
Several of the youth I spoke with said they feel safer in a smaller city like Olympia than in Portland or Seattle. But they also complained that trust within the street family has broken down recently – mostly because of rampant drug abuse – meth and lately heroin.
Police say they’ve seen more violence too. Charles Shelan at Community Youth Services says last fall’s homeless camp murder was a galvanizing event. In response, he secured emergency funding to open a seasonal, ten bed overnight shelter.
“We know if that young man would have had a safe place to stay and had chosen to stay there, he would be alive today.”
That murder hit especially close to home for Chelan and his staff. Court records indicate the accused – Christopher Harrison – was a client at Community Youth Services.