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Woman, 97, has a front seat to homelessness

Bessie Mae Berger and her two sons, 60 and 62, live in a rusty 1973 Suburban. Getting a place is hard because they insist on staying together.

October 16, 2009|Bob Pool

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.

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