She is known as Mary, but not even she is sure of her real name.
Some of those who have observed the elderly homeless woman who has lived out of a grocery cart at the same West Hollywood street corner for five years simply wish she would go away.
They cite her habit of screaming at passers-by on Santa Monica Boulevard, and of defecating and urinating in public.
Social workers and others who have tried to help the mysterious woman who often talks in riddles say Mary’s case illustrates the limits of help available to homeless people from social service agencies and the public mental health system.
Receives Disability Income
“Mary’s one of those people who’ve truly slipped through the cracks,” said Rene Seidel, a social worker with West Hollywood’s Homeless Program who was instrumental in helping the woman obtain a modest disability income from the federal government last spring.
After months of effort, Mary began receiving a monthly stipend of $637 from the Social Security Administration after a check of her fingerprints identified her as “Mary Doeth.”
But she also answers to “Elizabeth,” and no one believes that Mary Doeth is her real name.
“No one knows where she came from, how old she is or why she chose West Hollywood, not to mention that one street corner, to call home,” Seidel said.
The wrinkled, chain-smoking woman, who has a penchant for wearing sweaters in all kinds of weather, was the victim of “a Catch-22 in which she couldn’t qualify for (financial) assistance because she couldn’t prove who she was and she couldn’t prove who she was because she didn’t know,” Seidel said.
“The sad thing is, now that she can afford a modest place, because of her eccentricities, no one we’ve been able to find is willing to rent to her,” he said.
In the five years that Mary has been on the corner, she has ignored the complaints of merchants and residents, the cajoling of social workers and the efforts of city officials to dislodge her.
Last spring, the owner of the small shopping center next to the spot where Mary lives had workers chop down the trees and bushes in front of the center, partly to discourage her from using the area as a restroom.
It didn’t work.
“You take the customers at the frozen yogurt store, they don’t want to be subjected to that sort of visual thing,” said Richard Levitt, the owner. “It becomes a question of economics. The businesses in my center say they’re losing customers because of it.”
City officials were similarly unsuccessful a few months ago when they removed a bus bench Mary used as a chair by day and a bed by night. She now sits and sleeps next to a nearby wall.
Authorities have hesitated to arrest her for loitering “because it really serves no useful purpose,” said Lt. Don Mauro of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
“Taking her into custody does nothing to help her with the help she needs,” he said. “It would really be futile.”
Levitt said that unless there is a solution soon, he intends to “put up a cactus garden or something that will make it physically impossible for her to continue at the same location.
“I genuinely care about this woman’s welfare and want to see her helped. It just seems incredible to me that someone in such obvious need of help doesn’t seem to be able to get it, and then everyone winds up losing.”
From her office in the corporate headquarters of Hollyway Cleaners, Rhonda Caam has observed Mary for as long as anyone.
“I’ve watched (county mental) health workers and sheriff’s deputies come and escort her from the corner on numerous occasions, and each time, after a few days or weeks, she’s managed to reappear,” Caam said.
Social workers say that because of an acute shortage of beds at county and state mental health facilities, Mary does not qualify for long-term treatment programs because she is not considered to be a danger to herself or others.
And although she does qualify for so-called board and care facilities--treatment houses catering to a small group of clients with the freedom to come and go--she refuses to stay at any of them.
“Every time we’ve helped her to locate at a board and care (facility), the next thing you know she walks off and is right back on the corner,” Seidel said. “For better or worse, it’s the only world she seems to know.”
In an interview, Mary indicated as much, although she seemed unable to discuss her past or what attracted her to the corner.
“I got on a bus once and went to Phoenix and Albuquerque, just to see what was out there,” she said. “But I came back because I just like it here.”