Barbara Whittington couldn't believe it when she saw a photo in a Chicago newspaper that showed her cousin, Helen Oliver, holding a cat and a few possessions after being evicted from a shantytown in Los Angeles.
"She (Oliver) used to have a beautiful home in San Francisco," Whittington recalled sadly.
Whittington, 43, and her daughter, Deirdre, 23, arrived in Los Angeles on Monday after a two-day train trip in hopes of persuading Oliver, 61, to return to Chicago with them.
The three met and embraced tearfully Monday morning in the park that Oliver now calls home at 6th Street and Gladys Avenue, half a block from the ruins of the Justiceville shantytown.
But Oliver declined their offer.
"I'm all right," she said. "My animals are eating twice a day. I'm waiting for my fiance to come get me."
Later, Barbara Whittington told a reporter: "I don't know whether she really has a fiance or not. This is very sad because she doesn't have to live this way. We've tried to get her to see a doctor."
Whittington said that when her cousin was divorced several years ago, she gave up her house in San Francisco in favor of a cash settlement. Oliver soon dropped from sight. Whittington said it had been seven or eight years since the family had last heard from her.
Oliver said she lived in Las Vegas for several years and moved to Los Angeles in 1982.
Early Monday afternoon, Oliver was eating a lunch provided free by the Hare Krishna's Food for Life program, which feeds the poor in the park every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Her cat, Pam, slept peacefully on a bed of three blankets atop Oliver's shopping cart. Beneath the blankets were several pieces of cardboard and two bags of cans.
Three dogs--Memi, Boy and June--were tied to the cart. They were asleep.
Oliver seemed somewhat surprised by the attention she was receiving over the photo of herself and her cat.
"A lady from Pasadena drove up and said it broke her heart," she said. "She brought some food for me and my animals and told me to call her later in the week. A couple of other people gave me some money."
Can't Find Room
Oliver said she has been unable to find a room because she refuses to be separated from her pets.
"I wouldn't put them in a kennel, even if I had the money," she said.
She had found each of the animals "abandoned and left to starve on the street," she explained. "I took them in because I didn't want them to be picked up by the animal shelter and killed."
So she spends the nights outdoors.
"I don't sleep much at night," she said. "I'm afraid someone might do something to me or them (the animals). I nod off a little--it's hard not to. Then I take a few naps during the day."
Oliver declined to give more details about her fiance, except to say that his name is Herbert and he lives "somewhere in California."
Later Monday afternoon, Barbara Whittington and her daughter returned to the park with food for Oliver and again pleaded with her to go to Chicago. Oliver again said no.
But in her own way, Barbara Whittington sounds every bit as determined as her cousin.
"We still hope we can talk her into going back with us," Whittington said quietly while Oliver tended to her animals. "We haven't given up yet."