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All God's Children

3.70  ·  Rating details ·  321 ratings  ·  58 reviews
James Daniel Nelson first hit the streets as a teenager in 1992. He joined a clutch of runaways and misfits who camped out together in a squat under a Portland bridge. Within a few months the group—they called themselves a "family"—was arrested for a string of violent murders. While Nelson sat in prison, the society he had helped form grew into a national phenomenon. Stree ...more
Hardcover, 336 pages
Published January 30th 2007 by PublicAffairs (first published January 1st 2007)
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Average rating 3.70  · 
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Heather Dawn Stowell
What I was struck by in All God’s Children, was the revelatory documentation by Denfeld on a new trend in alienated youth about the degree with which they deliberately dissociate and choose homelessness.

I can somewhat relate to this from my own early teen homelessness experiences and I can certainly understand what could cause such a type of alienation. But back then when I was a homeless youth, even though there were not nearly as many resources available, as there was in the 1990’s. I rememb
Jan 15, 2008 rated it did not like it
Recommends it for: people who can keep a sharp critical eye
OK as sort of expected this book was pretty offensive and totally frustrating - so much so I think I read the whole thing in less than 72 hours. I'm not sure where to start - do I start by saying the author thinks most homeless youth are prone to meth use and killing? Do I start by telling you she thinks places that give out free meals make it "easy to be homeless"? Do I start by telling you that even though I myself don't know very much about being homeless in downtown Portland that I know enou ...more
Sassafras Lowrey
Oct 18, 2017 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
If i could give this book less than 1 star I would. It was written by someone who clearly has zero understanding of homeless youth, and is oddly obsessed with creating this portrayal of homeless youth that seems like a bad occult movie/after school special. The author also repeatedly and oddly villainized service providers for following best practices (using youth's names, not releasing records or information to police or abusive parents) and glorifying the parents these youth (many of whom were ...more
Stephanie Griffin
Aug 15, 2011 rated it really liked it
In 2003, Jessica Kate Williams was murdered in one of the most horrific ways imaginable. James Daniel Nelson was ultimately responsible for this and another murder in 1992. But he didn’t hold the weapons that killed Jessica; he had his “family” do it for him. How did he have such control over a dozen other street kids? ALL GOD’S CHILDREN: Inside the Dark and Violent World of Street Families, written by Rene Denfeld, explains how. James, or “Thantos” as he liked to be called, was the “father” of ...more
Aug 05, 2008 rated it it was ok
This look at the culture of street kid "families" focuses on the brutality of a few and ignores the vast majority of homeless youth that never commit murder. The writer insists that the youth agencies that provide food, shelter, and programs for these kids enable them to continue to live on the streets and "playact" when they could go home to loving middleclass families. She fails to address the many complicated causes of teen homelessness (abuse, addiction, poverty, education, mental illness, s ...more
Feb 21, 2008 rated it did not like it
I don't like the way this writer handled the material concerning this true story. Sensationalist is the best I can say about her attitude, and my friend called it "propaganda" which is much more accurate all around. Her treatment of "street culture" is inaccurate and exaggerated. Pulp non-fiction; unrecyclable trash basically. ...more
Jul 31, 2008 rated it it was ok
The more I think about this book, the more irritated I am by it. I do believe that Denfeld has brought attention to a legitimate problem, that of "street families" -- that is, small ganglike groups of young street people, often lead by charismatic individuals -- that contribute to crime and commit acts of violence. Denfeld focuses strongly on several vicious murders perpetrated by a man named James Daniel Nelson with the assistance of other street "kids" (most of the "kids" mentioned were in the ...more
Aug 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I am really loving this author. There is a clear and professional element in her research and detail in her work. This book really opened my eyes to two things (well a million things) but the two in particular were: the organization of street youth into street families contributed to an increase violence and how this segment of the population demonstrates in the extreme, how operating on misinformation is often preferable to the truth. There is a drug like thirst for drama and righteousness that ...more
Sep 14, 2017 rated it did not like it
While reading I tried Googling the murdered as well as the murderers, I only found a few stories, so the one good thing I have to say is that the dead get some measure of justice by having their horrific, sadistic deaths given some attention.

This is a DNF for me. I do not get queasy easily, I am into real-life crime stories, but this just felt disgustingly voyeuristic just so the author could make a buck. I kept waiting for some insight into actual reasons, not speculations that seemed hackneyed
This is a meticulous outsiders account of the modern phenomena of a certain sub-sub-sub culture as it flourished for a time bracketed by murders planned by a certain young man who, during that time, acted as street father to a group of kids who had congregated under his leadership.

RD gives the backstory to the backstory, and she almost gets it. My main resistance was to the overly explicit violent descriptions. RD really does deliver more than this reader needed to know. Yet it was devastating h
Erin Charpentier
Dec 03, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I love Rene Denfeld and wanted to read this one before the newest Butterfly Girl book. I did not know much about homeless street culture, if anything at all. Having spent time in Denver a few summers ago, I did notice the groups of homeless children together often with older adults but had no idea this had to do with families that form. This was a gritty and often uncomfortable read about the Thantos family, a particularly violent and criminal-led family. It was not easy, but I definitely feel t ...more
Jeremiah Rider
Rene Denfeld... as an individual who LIVED this book...I applaud you...I have a question..when you say that you immersed yourself in the culture, does that mean you were down there with us? Undercover, in a sense? I would love to discuss this book with you. My name is Jeremiah Rider. Please, reach out to me on Facebook if you would like to chat.
Toni Hughes
May 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The events of this book happened in my community. This book changed how I view homeless people and some of the organizations who serve them. I shared this book dozens of time
Aug 26, 2019 rated it it was ok
This book seemed biased against the street kids. I don't know much about the culture but it just seemed all negative. Maybe it is. I also feel like a lot of the information repeated itself. ...more
Jan 29, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
An important read about street families throughout the country. This book focuses on a particular “family” in Portland, Oregon.
Tracy Davis
Jun 14, 2019 rated it liked it
I was just shocked by this book. I was on my own at 18, worked 3 jobs and put myself through college, but I always felt one step away from being on the streets.
I went to college in tempe AZ in the late 90s and remember the street kids showing up on mill ave. I often though that could be me and often gave them food.
After reading this book I’m absolutely horrified about the violence aspect. I always thought of them as homeless hippy types.
Well written book, really opened up my eyes to a world I
Sep 07, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2010-books-read
There is a body of a young girl found on the train tracks in Oregon. She has been beaten and burned beyond recognition. It is found out that her name is Jessica and that she had been involved with a family living on the streets.

The street families have their own "laws" and if you do not abide by them, you pay the price.

This book was very well researched and you are quickly pulled into the street life and the different families that reside in Oregon. What is the hardest to realize is the violence
Aug 03, 2011 rated it really liked it
I thought this book was very interesting, especially since it was a story that happened in Portland, Oregon. It had a lot of information that I didn't know about and while I knew that not all children who are on the streets are from abusive families or are thrown out of their homes, I didn't realize how many were choosing to live on the streets because to them it was "fun and exciting" and they are easily able to do so because of all the services offered to them by the teen shelters. It's a scar ...more
Oct 31, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Heartbreaking and terrifying. The only non-fiction book I've ever read that turned pages like fiction.

The people described in this book were brought out one by one and wrapped together intricately throughout, leading to one final event. Even though you knew how the book was going to end, somehow you cared enough for each and every person that you wished along the way the book would re-write itself to a different conclusion. A must read for anyone who lives in Portland, Oregon. It will change ho
Aug 10, 2011 rated it liked it
"All God's Children" tells a very interesting story about the environment, background and circumstances of a group of people that culminated in an atrocious murder. Rene Denfeld tells the story well and supports the story by including the stories and opinions of police and shelter workers that were in some way involved or connected. It was as good of a read as it was unsettling.

That said, "All God's Children" should not be taken as indicative of the entire homeless experience. The murder and beh
Carrie O'Dell
Mar 20, 2008 rated it it was amazing
I basically inhaled this book in two days. While it's a journalistic exploration of street families (which are primarily composed of kids who CHOOSE to live on the street rather than the legitamately homeless who actually have nowhere to go)this reads a bit like a novel at points, pulling the reader into the dark, violent world of these "kids", many of whom are over 18. Ironic that these teens run from the structure of home and family just to place themselves in a world with more rules, more vio ...more
Jul 19, 2010 rated it liked it
I must admit I inhaled this book in a couple of days, and definitely NOT because it's a feel good story. This is an account of one street family that murdered a young woman hanging out in downtown Portland. It has been interesting to read the reviews and to see how defensive folks get about how this author challenges the romanticized view of homeless youth. I work a bit with this population and I definitely see the issue as complex. Of course all homeless kids are not living in a murderous cult. ...more
Jan 06, 2008 rated it liked it
A very dark portrayal of Portland's street youth scene. I have lived in Portland for most of the time covered by this book and I am distressed at how little I knew about the details of the lives of the teens I passed daily on the streets of downtown Portland.

Rene Denfield has a clear agenda in this book, an it sometimes clouds her analysis, but it was a good, and sometimes painful counterpoint to the (limited) media coverage on the issue. I think this is an important book to be included on the
Clay Nelson
Jun 23, 2011 rated it really liked it
I am a teacher, I've worked in alternative school settings that had "street kids", I have a close relative that is a "crustie" (a street kid subculture)and lastly I got this book because I know one of the main kids involved in this horrible true story.
Rene Denfeld does a great job in exposing the many problems when it comes to the "street kid" issue. She also does this through the telling of a horrible crime that she has done a good job investigating.
Should you read this book - yes
But then pleas
Lew Serviss
Jun 24, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This is an extremely unnerving book. I read it when I lived briefly in Portland and worked in an office very close to the scene of the murder at the center of the story. Portland, like San Francisco and other cities in the Northwest, has a large population of street people. They are not to be confused with homeless people who wander the streets of Eastern cities: many of these Northwest street people are kids and young adults who are drawn to the thrill of living by their wits. Denfeld skillfull ...more
Jul 08, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: drama, biography
While this true account of and the whole concept of "street families" is horrific, I can't fault the author for that. She did an excellent job objectively relating the events and explaining the culture in great detail.

That said, I would NOT recommend this book unless you want yet another reason to believe that our society is doomed and evil is real.

All due respect to my friend, Lisa, who recommended this. I can see why it would be compelling for the mother of teenage sons living in Portland.
John Pappas
Jul 27, 2011 rated it really liked it
Dark and disturbing. Denfeld provides a glimpse inside the world of street urchins and "families" of homeless kids, and shows how the values of the street family culture, relying heavily on codes of conduct derived from a punk ethos, anarchism, Dungeons and Dragons and other subcultures, encouraged a group of kids, including a college student from a middle-class family, to commit multiple beatings and murders. Relying mostly on interviews and less on theory, this cultural study reads more like a ...more
Jul 28, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Anyone who is willing to look at the sad truth about some people on the streets
This book is well researched and offers a different view of youth who end up living on the street. As a person who loves social psychological theories, I loved reading about how the street families are formed and how quickly they shift. While some people do not like this book because she shows that some of these street kids truly did have other options, I think she is careful about saying that this is the case for all street kids.
Lizette Coppinger
May 14, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Lizette Coppinger by: Russell
Very good book and very well written. Offers a glimpse into the life of the "gutter hippies" that hang out all over Portland, OR, specially downtown. I'm sure not all of them are like the group discussed in the book but some of those kids out there are pretty scary and plain dirty. With their appearance and obvious strong work ethic, they won't be succeeding in life anytime soon... One can never expect much from these kinds of people. ...more
Jan 18, 2009 rated it liked it
Recommended to Krystal by: Heidi
Shelves: non-fiction
This book tells about the violence of street families in Portland, OR. It was particularly interesting to read as I am currently living in Portland. While it is a true story, and a riveting one at that, it is not exceptionally well written. Instead of reading like a seamless story, it is somewhat choppily written and there is extraneous information throughout the book. However, it is a good place to begin to get information about the culture of street families.
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Rene Denfeld is the bestselling author of THE CHILD FINDER, THE ENCHANTED and thee THE BUTTERFLY GIRL, which Margaret Atwood raved on twitter is "a heartbreaking, finger-gnawing, yet ultimately hopeful novel."

Rene's poetic fiction has won numerous awards including the French Prix, an ALA Medal for Excellence and an IMPAC listing. Rene works as an investigator, including exonerating innocents from

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