Los Angeles — They are young, well educated, and newly poor, and they have so swelled the ranks of the homeless here that Los Angeles now vies with New York, a city more than twice as populous, as the capital of American homelessness.
A recent study by the federal Housing and Urban Development agency esimates that 38,000 people live in Los Angeles County without homes, more than in any other American metropolis.
The numbers have grown tremendously since 1980. Now there are more homeless people in Los Angeles than at any time since the Great Depression.
''Since 1980, the number of homeless has grown so fast that they have overflowed the Skid Row area, and now they're virtually everywhere,'' says Marjorie Robertson of the University of California at Los Angeles. Dr. Robertson and Richard Ropers, also a scholar at UCLA, have just reported their findings after the most intensive study ever done of Los Angeles street people.
They were surprised by what they found. Some observations from their 238 in-depth interviews with the homeless:
* Forty percent of the homeless have completed at least one year of college. Seven percent have bachelor degrees. Overall, their education level is near the average for Los Angeles County.
* The average age of people living on the streets is 37.
* Only 25 percent are receiving any kind of public assistance.
* Seventy-five percent are men, although Dr. Robertson and other researchers note growing numbers of women - and women with children - on the streets in the 1980s.
* Nearly half the men in the UCLA study were military veterans.
* Two-thirds of the homeless had been on the streets for less than a year.
For many of these people, homeless-ness may be transitional, according to Dr. Robertson. ''In six months, you wouldn't see the same people (on the streets). Some get absorbed back into society. The problem is that it takes a long time to get over having been on the streets.''
For people without addresses or phone numbers, without a place to get a good night's sleep and clean up, it becomes progressively tougher to land a job with each passing day.
One encounters men like Don, for example, who slipped from a steady life as a working man of the industrial Midwest to drifting across the country looking for work, homeless and hard-drinking, to a stint at the Rajneesh religious community in Oregon, and finally to Skid Row in Los Angeles.
''Maybe we're weak,'' he said the other day, recalling his descent over the past year.
A young fellow, articulate and assertive, Don had worked eight years for International Harvester in Ohio when he was laid off. He is remarkably well groomed and alert for having spent the night sleeping in a chair at a downtown mission.
Don has found casual, day-labor jobs through curbside labor markets. But they can't give him the stability he needs to get set up in a permanent apartment. ''I want 40 hours,'' he says.
''If a man has a place to go home to, he can take a shower and feel good about himself. Then he can go out and look for a job. If I'm living out on the streets, then I'm in a rut.''
After losing his job with International Harvester, Don got caught in the rut fairly quickly. ''I'd be lying if I didn't say drinking had a lot to do with it. I got to feeling sorry for myself, and I went on the skids.'' He laughs about his 21/2 months with the Rajneeshees, who picked him up in Denver as part of a nationwide recruitment of the homeless. He used the stint to get some badly needed rest. He didn't find what he wanted there.
''All I want is a job, OK? So I can be normal.''
Many of the homeless, like Don, are among the ''new poor'' that have lost jobs in waning American industries, according to Madeleine Stoner, assistant dean of social work at the University of Southern California and another student of homelessness.
Compared to the traditional street people of decades past, she says, relatively few of the new poor are alcohol or drug abusers. ''They're just poor people.''
They want jobs. ''Any type of income coming in,'' says one Skid Row newcomer who has been sleeping in missions and in his car, ''I'm not really picky right now.''
A painter by trade, he points out that he came to Los Angeles to find a job and get his family off the welfare rolls. But his finances have grown steadily worse, his car is deteriorating, and the last job he held he lost because his health was failing, he was getting irregular sleep in emergency shelters, and his car was breaking down.
''The poor,'' he says, ''are not just people with their hands out.''
Most observers find the causes of the burgeoning numbers of homeless in overall unemployment, cutbacks in social services (especially a factor in putting women out of their homes, and the severe scarcity of low-cost housing.
Dr. Robertson foresees the homeless population continuing to grow in the near future. ''The main reasons these people are on the street are not changing.''