Longform

Myths Over Miami

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The same overarching themes link the myths of 30 homeless children in three Dade County facilities operated by the Salvation Army -- as well as those of 44 other children in Salvation Army emergency shelters in New Orleans, Chicago, and Oakland, California. These children, who ranged in age from six to twelve, were asked what stories, if any, they believed about Heaven and God -- but not what they learned in church. (They drew pictures for their stories with crayons and markers.) Even the parlance in Miami and elsewhere is the same. Children use the biblical term "spirit" for revenants, never "ghost" (says one local nine-year-old scornfully: "That baby word is for Casper in the cartoons, not a real thing like spirits!"). In their lexicon, they always use "demon" to denote wicked spirits.

Their folklore casts them as comrades-in-arms, regardless of ethnicity (the secret stories are told and cherished by white, black, and Latin children), for the homeless youngsters see themselves as allies of the outgunned yet valiant angels in their battle against shared spiritual adversaries. For them the secret stories do more than explain the mystifying universe of the homeless; they impose meaning upon it.

Virginia Hamilton, winner of a National Book Award and three Newberys (the Pulitzer Prize of children's literature), is the only children's author to win a MacArthur Foundation genius grant. Her best-selling books, The People Could Fly and Herstories, trace African-American folklore through the diaspora of slavery. "Folktales are the only work of beauty a displaced people can keep," she explains. "And their power can transcend class and race lines because they address visceral questions: Why side with good when evil is clearly winning? If I am killed, how can I make my life resonate beyond the grave?"

That sense of mission, writes Harvard psychologist Robert Coles in The Spiritual Life of Children, may explain why some children in crisis -- and perhaps the adults they become -- are brave, decent, and imaginative, while others more privileged can be "callous, mean-spirited, and mediocre." The homeless child in Miami and elsewhere lives in a world where violence and death are commonplace, where it's highly advantageous to grovel before the powerful and shun the weak, and where adult rescuers are nowhere to be found. Yet what Coles calls the "ability to grasp onto ideals larger than oneself and exert influence for good" -- a sense of mission -- is nurtured in eerie, beautiful, shelter folktales.

In any group that generates its own legends -- whether in a corporate office or a remote Amazonian village -- the most articulate member becomes the semiofficial teller of the tales. The same thing happens in homeless shelters, even though the population is so transient. The most verbally skilled children -- such as Andre -- impart the secret stories to new arrivals. Ensuring that their truths survive regardless of their own fate is a duty felt deeply by these children, including one ten-year-old Miami girl who, after confiding and illustrating secret stories, created a self-portrait for a visitor. She chose a gray crayon to draw a gravestone carefully inscribed with her own name and the year 1998.

Here is what the secret stories say about the rules of spirit behavior: Spirits appear just as they looked when alive, even wearing favorite clothes, but they are surrounded by faint, colored light. When newly dead, the spirits' lips move but no sound is heard. They must learn to speak across the chasm between the living and the dead. For shelter children, spirits have a unique function: providing war dispatches from the fighting angels. And like demons, once spirits have seen your face, they can always find you.

Nine-year-old Phatt is living for a month in a Salvation Army shelter in northwest Dade. He and his mother became homeless after his father was arrested for drug-dealing and his mother couldn't pay the rent with her custodial job at a fast-food restaurant. (Phatt is his nickname. The first names of all other children in this article have been used with the consent of their parents or guardians.) "There's a river that runs through Miami. One side, called Bad Streets, the demons took over," Phatt recounts as he sits with four homeless friends in the shelter's playroom, which is decorated with pictures the children have drawn of homes, kittens, and hearts. "The other side the demons call Good Streets. Rich people live by a beach there. They wear diamonds and gold chains when they swim."

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Lynda Edwards