AT Fifth and San Pedro here, a man in a black beret steps over legs protruding from a cardboard box. He peeks through barbed wire at dozens of figures in a vacant lot - beneath blankets, against shopping carts and milk crates. Among the hundreds of faces, he spies friends - Akim, Pee Wee, Chocolate, Dr. Ross. ``Is it coming?'' asks one man, leaning against a wall painted bright with verse.
``It's coming,'' answers Charles Walker, also known as Southern Comfort or just Comfort.
What's coming - if Comfort and 12 other skid-row poets, as well as 50 core supporters, have their way - is a neighborhood storefront where they can write, print, and store manuscripts. The money raised by published works, local performances, and readings would go for an even larger warehouse space for a homeless cultural center - a gathering place for dancers, singers, writers, and photographers.
``We are not disillusioned. We realize this will take time and hard work,'' says Comfort, vice-president of Los Angeles's 20-month-old Homeless Writers Coalition (HWC). ``The homeless need culture, too. We are prepared for the sacrifice.''
Los Angeles County's 160,000 homeless population - second only to New York City's, by some estimates - is centered in this district of rundown hotels, vacant lots, missions, and warehouses.
In March, 1989, Comfort, Dino, and Jackie literally crawled out of the cardboard boxes they called home and began reciting their feelings in public. They read their works from park benches and the tailgates of pickup trucks, amid often-hostile crowds. Others joined with them to perform plays in vacant lots.
As the group grew, they displayed their words with oil-painted graffiti on a community totem known as ``The Wall.''
``When I was young, I used to dream/ But this was not meant to be/ The face that I am seeing now/ Was not the one I wanted to see,'' reads one by a poet known simply as ``K/O.''
``Our problems are not the ones you speak of/ What we need is to be served/ And served with love,'' wrote Comfort.
As notice of their work increased, they took their words and performances to a wider public - to bookstores, parks, theaters, and private homes across the city. In their short history, they have gotten the attention of cultural officials, the entertainment community, and local theater producers. Now nonwriter artists in the multi-block homeless district are poised to follow suit.
A work written by Dino, ``One Night Only,'' was performed Oct. 13 at California State University here. About six other members are appearing in a low-budget film about a computer hacker who helps the homeless. Comfort is writing a novel.
Last Feb. 24 at the California Afro-American Museum at Exhibition Park, several celebrities, including actors Danny Glover and Lou Gossett Jr., read poems by Dino, Comfort, and others.
``Dino and Comfort took some cues from the pros and then read their own,'' recalls Steve Teixeira, a teacher at California State. ``Their stuff was so ... expressive it blew the crowds away.''
Critics point out that the raw, near-rap poetry of HWC may not stand up to critical assessments.
But Scott Kelman, artistic director of Pipeline, which publishes a newsletter containing verse by homeless writers, rebuts: ``You must remember their work contains the visions of many homeless who can't express themselves as well as [trained writers]. They have overcome a lot of obstacles just to do what they do.''
Stories tell of cardboard and concrete, banishment and scorn. There are tales of waiting in soup lines, sleeping in the rain, the temptation of drugs. There are fear and denial, but there are also hope, love, dreams. Words of catharsis, they are aimed at renewal, the first steps to a doorway out of homelessness.
``We want to tell society we're not just a bunch of bums and winos,'' says Comfort. ``We are just like everybody else, except we don't have homes.''
``We also want to tell the homeless, `It's not all your fault. Hang in there. Stay clean [from drugs] if you can,' '' says Jackie Townson, a one-time crack addict who is now HWC's chief administrator.
HWC ``is a perfect example of how cultural expression can provide both outlet and unity,'' says Al Nodal, general manager of the city's Cultural Affairs Department, which awarded the group matching grants. ``They've achieved a momentum that is helping coalesce attention within and without their own kind.''
`FROM the beginning I've been taken by their acts of courage,'' recalls Tom Stringer, former theater editor of the arts-and-entertainment weekly ``L.A. Reader,'' who listed one HWC offering on his 10-best list of theater productions of 1989. Mr. Stringer recalls following the group to different locations in skid row, where the poets read amid verbal epithets and angry youths circling with broken bottles.
``At first people would go on sleeping, or just walk by,'' says Stringer. ``But then they'd win the crowds over - even bleary-eyed guys would sit up, take notice, and cheer. It showed the imperative of reaching people in their isolation,'' he says.
On the night of my visit, Comfort and Jackie are reading at a private home in San Pedro, where a local attorney has invited guests for a fund-raiser. Two nights later, Dino and others will be reading at a bookstore in Santa Monica. A typical evening includes an introduction, poetry, and a plea for donations.
Spread out on a display table are small stapled booklets produced by each poet with the help of friends owning desktop printers.
``I will endeavor to take you to the streets from which I came,'' reads the introduction to ``From the Heart of a Poet,'' by Dino, president of HWC. ``Let us walk together through 30 years of hustling, drugs, gangs, and just living on the streets....''
``I don't know what I'll read tonight,'' says Comfort, sitting in Gorky's Cafe, about three blocks from skid row. His dark beard and beret make for a fierce visage that dissolves to a baby face when he smiles. ``I like to hit people with stuff that'll wake 'em up and make 'em say, `Yeah, I see how he got trapped.'' or `Yeah, that could happen to me,' '' he says.
``Depths'' director Michael McGee says the expressiveness nurtured by HWC has empowered its participants: ``When you tap into the creative life of a person, it's a healing thing. It heals them more than bread, more than a place to sleep.'' he says. ``I lost some actors because now they have jobs.''
He maintains such poetry should be measured by special criteria.
``They carry a humanitarian vision. Rather than write to delight in the idea of being artists, they write out of necessity. They are driven by a vision, which is where real artists come from.''
Though HWC has come a long way fast, some observers worry whether the group's dream of a cultural center is realistic. ``Without a show of community largesse - say, somebody to donate an empty building - it will be very difficult to acquire the kind of space the coalition desires,'' says Kelman.
But the doubters don't faze Dino, who has written: ``Now my head is no longer filled with smoke/ And my life is more than a hit and a joke/ Everything has come together again/ So for me, this is the beginning and not the end.''