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Cyberspace Comes to Skid Row

Homeless people are going online to ease isolation, cook up scams or fulfill their e-commerce ambitions.

November 18, 1999|GREG MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Who was Jeff Bee-zos before the Internet?" David asks, referring to the founder of Amazon.com. "The guy has built a billion-dollar fortune selling online what you can find in any bookstore."

"It's not Bee-zos," Randy points out. "It's Bay-zos!"

"You sure? I'm pretty sure it's Bee-zos."

They banter like this for hours, babbling about hyperlinks and e-commerce strategies, sounding like the masses at any trendy breakfast bar in Silicon Valley.

And for the better part of the past year, they have ended most days by logging off Internet terminals at the Los Angeles Central Library and walking back to their beds in a homeless shelter on skid row.

In a sign of how swiftly technology is spreading into every corner of society, the down and out are logging on.

Technology may have widened the gap between haves and have-nots, with study after study showing that computer and Internet usage rise in lock-step with household income. But at society's very bottom, among those who would be thrilled to have a household or an income, barriers to access are crumbling.

Hundreds of homeless shelters across the country have installed computer labs in recent years that would be the envy of most high schools. Librarians in Los Angeles and other cities say that on some days up to 75% of the people using free Internet terminals are homeless. Organizations in Seattle, Montreal and other cities have even opened "cybercafes" for the homeless.

For better and occasionally for worse, the homeless are taking advantage. Free e-mail has been a boon to thousands of homeless people who would otherwise be unreachable by phone or letter. Some search online classifieds for jobs. Others use free Web-hosting services to set up scams.

One homeless man in Los Angeles was recently admitted to college and awarded financial aid based on applications he submitted online. Another is wanted by the Los Angeles Police Department for allegedly conning consumers out of at least $18,000 through phony online auctions.

"You might be surprised by the people who go online," says Randy Lamar, 35, who was correct about the pronunciation of Bezos. "I'm surprised by some of the people who don't."

Lamar, a garrulous, 240-pound former salesman, is one of 30 or so homeless Internet aficionados who spend hours each day logged on to terminals at the Los Angeles Central Library.

Many of them come simply to surf the Web or send e-mail. But others have e-commerce ambitions. They see the Net as any entrepreneur would--a stream of money flowing from one computer to the next--and try to divert what they can.

One resident of a downtown shelter runs a site, http://www.bicycle-tools.com, where he hopes to sell parts he bought from a local bike shop that was going out of business.

The site's creator, Mauricio Tellez, 32, has yet to take an order. But by taking advantage of free online service, Tellez has equipped his site with features that include a virtual shopping cart, a customer fax line and a credit card payment system.

"I still have to set up some other partnerships," he says. "But the site is already merchant-capable."

Others have found ways to make money without having an actual product. Alex Trestrail, for instance, says he pocketed a few thousand dollars this year running a site called Videosunlimited.com.

He had no inventory, but customers desperate enough for his "hard to find" titles--including porn--sent checks to his post office box anyway. In turn, he simply ordered the films from other obscure sites that did carry them, pocketing a few dollars on each transaction.

"I sold about 2,000 movies," said Trestrail, 24, who recently moved out of a skid row shelter into an apartment with a relative. "But I spent the money as fast as I counted it."

Of course, technology remains a distant consideration for most of the estimated 650,000 homeless people in the United States. By definition, they are more concerned with finding food and shelter than with logging on.

But even if most homeless people aren't seeking technology, technology is increasingly coming to them.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the skid row section of Los Angeles. The area is home to dozens of shelters, soup kitchens and low-rent hotels. At night, many of its sidewalks resemble cardboard campgrounds.

But sprouting up amid this squalor are carpeted, air-conditioned, computerized rooms that could easily be mistaken for Silicon Valley software labs. At least half a dozen skid row shelters have opened computer centers in the 1990s to teach homeless people everything from remedial math to basic computer skills.

"We're not out to make people computer experts," said Chris Gambol, director of the computer center at the Union Rescue Mission on San Pedro Street. "But these days, even a shipping and receiving clerk better know how to operate a mouse."

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