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A Student of the Mean Streets : Advocate for Homeless Fears U.S. Playing With 'Social Dynamite'

February 17, 1988|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

Jonathan Kozol is walking up Main Street on Los Angeles' Skid Row when a man with only a shirt wrapped around his waist sprints by, looking over his shoulder and shouting, "In the name of Jesus, I'll make it. In the name of Jesus, in the name of Jesus."

People stop, heads turn on the crowded sidewalk, some guffaw.

But Kozol, well-known writer, social activist and student of mean streets and hard neighborhoods, doesn't break stride.

"That's a little strange," he comments. "It's like there's a whole class of people who are expendable. You don't see many people like that in New York City, they'd freeze to death. This is like tropical destitution . . . tropical poverty."

It's all in a day's grim work for Kozol.

For the last couple of years, Kozol has been immersed in the netherworld of this country's homeless people, who he estimates number between 2 million and 3 million.

The former schoolteacher is the author of the just-published "Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America," a generally well-received book that reports on impoverished New York families living in the city's vermin-infested, drug- and crime-saturated welfare hotels, some only blocks from centers of wealth and power.

In Magazine, Bookstores

Excerpted in the New Yorker magazine and with 40,000 copies ordered by bookstores, "Rachel and Her Children" is Kozol's best-selling book since he attracted national attention more than 20 years ago with "Death at an Early Age" about inner-city schools.

At 51, he is an intensely energetic man whose hands move constantly when he talks, who never seems to stop moving even when sitting down. He even eats on the run, downing an apple and a bowl of frozen yogurt on the drive from his hotel in Beverly Hills to downtown Los Angeles.

For the last two weeks Kozol has been touring the country and wherever he goes--Washington, Denver, Chicago, Seattle--he ends up in that city's homeless district, comparing local versions of impoverishment with the Big Apple's wormy core.

On the seamy side of Los Angeles, Kozol watches as the nearly naked man dashes up to a bus about to pull away from the curb and bangs on the door. The driver refuses to open up and the man, a desperate look on his face, turns down 3rd Street and disappears, pursued by private demons.

Kozol shakes his head and continues up the street, past a liquor store, a bar, men slumped against walls.

This hot February day Kozol has covered only a few blocks but he has seen enough to form powerful impressions.

"This is really something out here," he says. "This looks like a Third World country. The sections of our major cities, they look like little Third World colonies or refugee camps."

Earlier, at a food line set up in a Skid Row parking lot, he watched as people scrambled for greasy remains when the chicken and rice ran out.

"Look at that man with the cap on," he said. "Now he's just spooning it in. Look at that. Look at that. The only other place I've seen that is Haiti--where people would get on their knees and scoop up some juice from the bottom of the pot."

A few minutes later he stops to talk to Jose and Jennifer Garcia at a taco stand. Jose cradles their infant daughter, Lianne. Drawn out by Kozol, the shy young couple say they are on the verge of homelessness, certain of an apartment in Boyle Heights only until the end of the month. Jose says he is working at a garment factory but the pay is low.

Later, Kozol reflects on this encounter:

"This is kind of a classic situation--mother, father, infant, father apparently working virtually full time and coming out of the month with $400 or $500, which would barely pay the rent in Los Angeles with no money for food, no money for diapers, no money for clothes . . . Increasingly the face of homelessness in America is the face of that little 38-day-old baby we just saw, not the face of a middle-aged alcoholic.

"A lot of good working people in the United States are just three paychecks and one bad operation, one cancer diagnosis, one emergency away from homelessness."

Similarity of Homelessness

Across the country, Kozol says, he has been struck by the similarity of those areas in cities where homeless people gravitate.

"If it weren't for the sunshine and the palm trees, this could have been the men's shelter at East 3rd Street in New York," he says.

There is another, perhaps more sinister, similarity in every part of the country, he says.

"In Washington people said to me, 'If homeless parents can't afford to pay the rent for their kids in Washington, why don't they go someplace else?' And I said, 'Where should they go?' and this guy said, 'Maybe Boston or New York.' And I said, 'Rent's higher in Boston and New York even than in Washington.' He said, 'Well, let them go to Chicago.'

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