She has a front seat to homelessness
She’s 97 years old and homeless. Bessie Mae Berger has her two boys, and that’s about all.
She and sons Larry Wilkerson, 60, and Charlie Wilkerson, 62, live in a 1973 Chevrolet Suburban they park each night on a busy Venice street.
For the most part, it’s a lonely life -- days spent passing the time away in public parks, parking lots and shopping centers around the Westside.
Occasionally, when they need cash, Bessie sits by the side of the road and seeks handouts. She holds a cardboard sign in her lap: “I am 97 years old. Homeless. Broke. Need help please.”
This has attracted attention -- both wanted and unwanted.
Randall Zook, a Culver City TV advertising producer, pulled over on a recent day when he saw her holding the sign in front of a Costco on Washington Boulevard.
“This little lady hit me deeply. I said I have to do something. I just can’t pass by her,” Zook said. “I went over and talked to her and was moved by her dignity. She wasn’t begging. She just asked, ‘Do you have a home for me?’ ”
Zook didn’t, but he gave her “more money than I’ve ever given anyone.”
For everyone who gives, there are many others who just drive by or simply stare.
“It makes me feel like I’m a bum,” Bessie said. “I don’t mind living at the mercy of the public because some of the public is good -- they’re nice to me. But there are some that are nasty. Some of them laugh at me and my sign. They say they don’t think I’m 97 years old.”
Reaching slowly into a pocket, she pulls out a laminated California state identification card that shows her date of birth: March 2, 1912.
Los Angeles police have warned her not to beg. And some passersby have turned to her sons, questioning why they cannot properly care for her.
“They ask why we aren’t able to get her off the street. But we can’t. I have no income whatsoever,” Larry Wilkerson said.
“A few days ago, my mother was sitting out with a sign over at Lincoln and Olympic. We were sitting four hours and she was doing pretty good. But then a police officer came along and said, ‘You can’t do this’ and ordered us off.”
Nighttime is the most uncomfortable part of their lives.
About 8:30 p.m., when Bessie tries to fall asleep, they use magnets to stretch a thin blue blanket over their SUV’s windshield to block the streetlights.
Charlie and Larry listen to a battery-operated portable radio-TV (the television doesn’t work) or chat quietly until about 10, when they try to doze off.
They sleep fitfully against the backdrop of cars roaring down Venice Boulevard and the distinctive screech of MTA buses.
Bessie spends the night hunched over and wrapped in blankets.
Larry curls up in the back seat and Charlie folds himself into the rear of the Suburban, moving aside a tool box, a gas can, piles of clothing and boxes holding food and other possessions. The largest items are stacked outside.
They awaken about 7, when the morning commuter rush is beginning and the sun is starting to peek through the trees that shade the neighborhood near the Venice Public Library.
After reloading the Suburban, they drive to a nearby Albertsons supermarket. There, they wash up in a restroom in the back of the store.
On their way out, they buy bananas and small containers of yogurt or cottage cheese for Bessie, and sandwich fixings -- often sliced turkey -- and grapes and other fruit for Charlie and Larry.
They eat inside the Suburban, Larry behind the wheel on the worn front seat and his mother at his side. Charlie sits on the back seat.
During the day, they make short trips in the battered vehicle, which they have spray-painted a flat black. The Suburban gets about six miles to the gallon, so they try to stick to Venice as they hunt for inconspicuous places to park for a few hours.
Weekdays, they pull into a Venice Beach parking lot, where they can enter for free with their disabled parking tag. They spend afternoons there, watching the sun set and hoping that circling sea gulls don’t bomb the Suburban with sticky white droppings.
“We talk to other homeless people,” Charlie said.
The three use the Westside Center for Independent Living in Venice as the mailing address for their monthly Social Security and disability checks.
Once a week they drive to Hollywood, where free showers are available at a drop-in center. Sometimes, free hot meals are served from a food truck. Last week they had a spaghetti dinner.
During this week’s trip there, they encountered actor-comedian Kevin Nealon at a gas station. He bought gas for them and introduced them to Laugh Factory owner Jamie Masada, who gave them pizza for dinner and said he may attempt to organize a fundraising show for them.
They live mostly on Bessie’s $375 monthly Social Security check, Charlie’s $637 disability payments, Larry’s $300 food stamp allocation and cash from bottles and cans they collect and recycle.
Bessie can add a few more dollars to the budget by panhandling. When she leaves the Suburban’s front seat, her two sons ease her into a fold-up wheelchair they carry in the back.
Bessie was born in the Bay Area city of Richmond six weeks before the Titanic sank.
“My mother carried my oldest brother through the earthquake and fire in San Francisco,” she said. “I’ve seen all the wars from World War I on down to the last one.”
Bessie spent her young adulthood in Northern California and worked as a packer for the National Biscuit Co. until she was in her 60s. She gave birth to 11 children, eight of whom are still living. She remains in contact only with Charlie and Larry, who were both born in San Francisco, grew up in Santa Rosa and have high school educations.
Their father, who had worked in San Francisco-area shipyards and as a Hollywood stunt driver, died in 1966. In all, Bessie has outlived three husbands. Charlie has been married four times, and Larry was briefly married once. Neither has children.
Charlie worked in construction and as a painter before becoming disabled by degenerative arthritis. Larry was a cook before compressed discs in the back and a damaged neck nerve put an end to it. Twenty-six years ago, he began working as a full-time caregiver for his mother through the state’s In-Home Supportive Services program.
That ended about four years ago, when the owner of a Palm Springs home where they lived had to sell the place. At the same time, the state dropped Larry and his mother from the support program, he said.
The three have tried at various times since to get government-subsidized housing. But they have failed, in part because they insist on living together.
They say they have driven the Suburban around the state looking for a housing program that will accommodate them. They have been in Los Angeles about eight months, following a stint in the Concord area.
They thought Bessie had finally qualified for federal Section 8 housing -- she had been promised a rental voucher, they say. But then she needed surgery to replace a pacemaker and spent three months in a recovery center. Housing authorities in Northern California awarded the voucher to someone else during her absence, according to her sons.
Living in the front seat is miserable, she said. Still, she is glad to at least have that.
The Suburban is a constant source of headaches for the three. It is riddled with rust, and a tailgate window is permanently stuck open. During a recent trip to a storage unit they rent in Palm Springs, the Suburban’s rear axle broke. It cost them $600 to replace, they said.
As the season’s first rainstorm approached, they purchased a large piece of plastic to duct-tape over the vehicle’s rear window.
They would like to find a way to stay together in a house or apartment. Bessie qualifies for government-paid senior citizen assistance, but her two sons are too young.
“There’s a million empty homes here in California, but they can’t seem to find one we can live in,” Larry said.
But help still might be available, said Shirley Christensen, assistant to the director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services.
Larry might qualify for Social Security disability benefits without having to sell the Suburban, as he had feared, if the old SUV is considered to have no resale value, she said. He and his brother might both qualify for general relief benefits.
At 97, Bessie is eligible for a referral to the county’s Department of Adult Protective Services, Christensen said.
But that might not lead to a housing arrangement that will keep her and her sons together, officials acknowledged.
“Housing is really tough in L.A. County right now, but there are programs that provide housing assistance,” said Mary Sanders, community liaison with the office that handles hotline screening for Adult Protective Services. “I’m not sure that would be with her and her sons.”
If nothing else, a protective services caseworker could help the three determine whether they’re receiving all of the benefits they are entitled to.
Told this, Larry took the protective services agency’s phone number and said he would call.
The three were at Venice Beach, where Larry cursed at the swooping gulls that were splotching the Suburban with droppings.
Earlier this day, the three had spent $40 on a money order to pay for a Northern California storage unit and $52 to replace their pre-paid cellphone after it was accidentally doused with coffee. They use the phone for emergencies, to keep tabs on their storage spaces and to call the facility where they get their mail.
Larry watched a passerby glance with apparent disdain at Bessie’s cardboard sign, which was taped to the Suburban’s passenger-side window.
“They think we’re liars,” he said.
Bessie sat alone inside the vehicle as the blue blanket over the windshield shaded her from the late-afternoon sun.