THE cast-off teen-agers that wander city streets from Manhattan's Times Square to Seattle's Pioneer Square live with ``a sense of total abandonment,'' says Bernard Lefkowitz. They're cut off from family, from school, and they doubt anyone cares or ever has cared. Mr. Lefkowitz speaks with authority. A journalist and an instructor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, he's spent most of the past couple of years doing the street-level research that enables him to give these voiceless young Americans a voice. He visited 15 cities and towns across the United States and talked to 280 homeless youths. Many he got to know quite well. Their stories are etched in his mind.
``I'd meet these kids in subway stations, in video arcades, on the Boston Common,'' he recalls during an interview in the New York offices of his publisher. The public sees these young drifters, he says, and tends to write them off as ``undifferentiated, as losers.'' Lefkowitz, however, was struck by ``how many smart kids are out there,'' and by the ``real, deep sense of failure'' that they lug around, along with their sparse belongings.
He was struck, too, by the social costs of what he saw.
``If the number of dropouts stays constant,'' he estimates, ``we will be spending something like $230 million a year in services for them, as well as losses because of crime.''
He packed his observations, impressions, and conclusions into a just-published book, ``Tough Change: Growing Up on Your Own in America'' (Free Press, $19.95). During the research for the book, he confides, there were times that he'd return home to his wife after a day in the urban jungle of Newark, N.J., for example, and lament, ``I don't know if I can keep doing this.''
But through the grim darkness of young lives heading nowhere, the writer caught some glimmers of hope.
``I have a tremendous, intense conviction that so many of the kids I've met could be productive adults if attention and resources were devoted to them.''
The anecdotes he relates to sustain this quick, but sharp note of optimism are luminous.
Myra Robertson, for example. Her life had deadended. She'd dropped out of school after the eighth grade, tired of being taunted by children and ignored by teachers. She seemed mired in her family's remote mountain-hollow home near the mining community of David, Ky. But she had a drive to be educated. Whenever and however she could, she acquired and read books, mostly paperback romances - over 300 of them.
Myra also had parents who cared about her. Her father heard of the David School, a private high school staffed by Roman Catholic lay workers, and got her enrolled. The folks at the school cared, too. Where she had no future a few years ago, she now contemplates college and a career in teaching. As Lefkowitz quotes her, ``I don't accept that I'm dumb any more. I think I can do anything.''
Despite her family's poverty and her early departure from school, Myra had more going for her than most of the teens one comes to know in the pages of Lefkowitz's book. She's white, her family is intact, and, most important, she got the crucial attention that lifted her from a quagmire of impoverished hopes and truncated dreams.
In the black or hispanic ghettos of New York City or Chicago, Lefkowitz met other kids who had comparable potential, kids with clear talents and drive. But their energies were being squandered on drugs or gang warfare, or being neutralized by the insensivity of teachers and prospective employers.
Ralph Ortiz, a 14-year-old Chicagoan, for example, was forced to take on the responsibility of playing father to three younger brothers while his mother ekes out a living in a glass factory. Ralph's other responsibility is leading his neighborhood youth gang, a post that immerses him in a grotesque world of fear, threats, and bloody retribution. That world eventually took over, dragging him out of school and his home.
Or Nelson Torres, a kid with such natural charm and persuasive abilities that he ``could sell life insurance to a corpse,'' says Lefkowitz. He opted for the streets instead of school because the rewards there seemed irresistible to an ambitious youngster with a thirst for ``class.''
The means: drug dealing.
Why are these kids and thousands of others slipping through the webbing of society into a kind of violent, vacuous netherworld?
Lefkowitz, inevitably, points to the failure of key institutions. ``The expectation of failure runs so deep in many inner-city schools that it's accepted as a fact of life,'' he says.
He's convinced that many educators spend more time trying to disguise drop-out statistics than doing anything substantial about the legions of young blacks and Hispanics leaving the classroom.
Inner-city schools have no choice, he says. They have to be in the business of counseling kids and bolstering families as well as conveying math and reading. And attitudes of aloofness, which say ``God forbid that teachers should be involved with any kid they're trying to educate,'' have to be junked.
Above all, he emphasizes, these kids need the support of involved, concerned adults. But ``How do you institutionalize concern?'' asks Lefkowitz.
He'd like to see a national mentorship, apprenticeship system that would address the needs of the under-educated, adrift kids now ``frozen out of the economic system.''
``There has to be a hook-up between the schools and the private sector - to do for these kids what extended families and ethnic ties did for Irish, Jewish, and Italian kids in the '60s.'' That comment comes from Bernie Lefkowitz's roots, as a inner-city Jewish kid who drew on just those resources to make his way in the world.
He wants to see the kids in his book get a similar type of opportunity, and he has no illusions about the difficulty of making that happen in an era of governmental belt tightening and ebbing social activism. At the least, his work will help bring the faceless, easily ignored street youth into focus for a lot of Americans. Then the rest of us will have to join Lefkowitz in thinking about their lot, and its implications for our society.