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Travelers Down on Their Luck Have a Friend at Airport

Times Staff Writer

The woman at Travelers Aid said her name was Debra and that she had bought a one-way plane ticket to Los Angeles, looking for a better life.

“Texas is too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter,” she said, explaining why she had left her hometown of Tomball, a midget of a place just northwest of Houston. “Besides, I wanted some adventure.”

Right away, she found some.

At the Houston airport, she said, someone stole her carry-on bag while she was inside a restroom. Except for the loose change in her pocket, the bag contained all her money--a $100 bill and two $50 bills that she had tucked into the cellophane on a cigarette pack. Also inside the carry-on bag was the unlisted phone number of a friend in Long Beach--the friend she expected to pick her up when she arrived in Los Angeles and give her a place to stay.

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Sought Help

When she landed, she had less than $2 to her name, her friend wasn’t there to greet her and she didn’t know how to reach him.

“I just walked around the terminal all night,” the 33-year-old woman said.

When morning came, she wound up in social worker Susan Edelstein’s small office on the mezzanine of Terminal One, seeking bus fare to Long Beach and help in finding her friend. The first thing she got was a hot breakfast.

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For three years, Edelstein has worked for Travelers Aid, the social agency best known at the sprawling airport for its legions of red-blazered volunteers. Stationed behind counters inside the airport’s eight terminals, the mostly elderly men and women--on duty from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekdays, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekends--patiently dispense information to harried travelers.

Edelstein handles the tough cases--the hundreds of needy people who go largely unnoticed among the throngs of well-dressed travelers. The down-and-out include teen-age runaways, the elderly and the mentally ill who come from some faraway city, and the constant stream of poor or homeless people who have plunked down their last few dollars for a ticket to Los Angeles.

“It never ceases to amaze me that they arrive with 10 cents in their pocket,” Airport Police Lt. James Cameron said.

“You look at these people and you see shades of ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ ” he said, referring to the John Steinbeck novel about the migration of penniless farmers to California during the Depression. “Airports are just like bus depots were 20 years ago or train depots were in the ‘40s. Anybody can afford a plane ticket now.”

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Police rely on Travelers Aid to help such people, he said.

Airport officials said they do not know how many needy people arrive at LAX on a given day. While many fly in--Edelstein said that when an airline advertises a cheap fare to Los Angeles, she braces herself for a surge in business--others arrive at the airport by bus or foot.

Shelter in Terminals

Some, notably the homeless, and especially when the weather turns foul, come from nearby beaches or cities close to the airport. Some rent lockers, use the same bathroom all the time, sleep on terminal chairs and eat food that travelers leave on cafeteria tables.

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They can get away with it for days.

“If a guy is wearing a tie, and sharp enough to change terminals, he can generally escape attention for quite a long time,” Cameron said.

Travelers Aid, which is financed by United Way, has had at least one social worker at LAX since the 1960s, according to Wayne Hinrichs, the agency’s executive director for Los Angeles. The LAX office has an annual budget of about $93,000. Since June, Edelstein has been assisted by Mindi Levins, also a social worker.

Hinrichs said that although the Travelers Aid office at LAX attempts to help people in an area stretching from the Palos Verdes Peninsula to Santa Monica, most of those who wind up in Edelstein’s office come from the airport. Last year, according to Edelstein’s figures, 75% of 1,600 cases she handled originated there.

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Edelstein said she views LAX as the “point of entry” into Los Angeles for the people she serves. Her role, she said, is either to “get them moving in the right direction or send them back to where they came from.”

“I really like to believe our intervention keeps them from becoming street people or from going on welfare,” she said.

Not that her patience is unlimited. Take, for instance, the identical twins who came to Los Angeles from Baltimore “to see California,” Edelstein said.

When the 21-year-old men showed up in her office and were told that she could not buy them bus tickets home, she said, the two simultaneously faked heart attacks in her office to get a free night’s lodging in a hospital. It worked.

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“You just never know what is going to come in here,” Edelstein said.

In the case of mentally ill or elderly people, Edelstein said, she tries to find out where they came from and send them back. The same holds true for runaways and other young people who arrive at the airport broke but ready to try their luck in the big city.

Such was the case of the young man in his early 20s who had flown to Los Angeles from a small town in Tennessee. He came to Edelstein for directions to Hollywood--he wanted to be a movie star. She lectured him about the perils he faced, and then found him a place to stay for the night.

The next morning she found a note from the man under her door, saying he had thought it over and was returning home. His parents paid for the return fare.

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“I’ve had more gullible young males walk in here,” she said, sighing.

For homeless or poor people who want to return home, the agency will attempt to provide a bus ticket provided they can prove there is someone on the other end to greet them, Edelstein said. For those who want to stay, she tries to find jobs and temporary shelter until they can get on their feet.

That was the situation with Mary, a woman in her late 30s from Paramus, N.J. Hoping to start a new life in Los Angeles, she had bought one-way tickets for herself and a teen-age son. The two stayed in a shelter until the woman found a job--which did not take long because she had secretarial skills, Edelstein said.

Not everyone cooperates, however. And some fall through the cracks and wind up on the streets. Unlike some other social service agencies, Edelstein said, the Travelers Aid office at LAX is “crisis-oriented.”

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“I basically have to do it all in one shot because I never see them again,” she said.

As for Debra from Texas, despite some detective work, no trace of her Long Beach friend could be found, according to Mindi Levins, who handled the case. Nevertheless, Debra was given bus fare to Long Beach after a shelter there said it could accommodate her.

Levins, who has worked at the airport for two months, said that she also gave Debra a 24-hour telephone number to call in case she found herself in trouble, and bus fare back to the airport in case things didn’t work out.

“I write these cases up,” Levins said, “and I feel like I keep writing the same thing. It just happens every day.”

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