The December 2006 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

The Poor Will Perish Without Housing

We Accuse the US Government

The Works of Mercy: Thoughts on the Death of a Homeless Man

Greed Fuels Oakland Condo Conversion Law

Berkeley Food and Housing Project

Happy Holidays: Berkeley Targets the Homeless

Claire Burch Documents Life on the Streets

St. Joseph the Worker Needs Support

94 Years Old and Still Homeless

Judge Orders Fresno to Uphold U.S. Constitution

Stranded in the Season of Giving

Stories of Street Survival

A Criminal of Poverty

New Media Offensive for Iraq War

Poor Leonard's Almanack on Religion

AIDS & Poverty: A Deadly Link

Mysteries in Our Own Back Yard

December Poetry of the Streets


November 2006

October 2006

September 2006

July 2006

June 2006

May 2006

April 2006

March 2006

February 2006

January 2006

November 2005

October 2005

September 2005

August 2005

July 2005

June 2005

May 2005

April 2005

March 2005

February 2005

Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

"My name is Bessie, I am 94 years old and still homeless"

by Mesha Monge-lrizarry, Idriss Stelley Foundation

A group of San Francisco community activists met at the New Progressive Center in the Excelsior District in mid-October, preparing for the 11th National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality, Repression, and Criminalization of a Generation. Two scruffy, boisterous, weathered white men walked in, pushing an elderly woman in a wheelchair: their mom, Bessie Berger, 94, deaf, her legs painfully, horribly swollen with severe cellulitis.

They introduced themselves: "I'm Larry Wilkerson, Bessie's son."

"And I am Charlie, her older son, we take care of her."

"I'm Bessie. I'm 94 years old, and still homeless. The police has been harassing me, please help us!" As everyone gasped, Bessie, obviously well cared for and neatly dressed, flashed a bright smile, a twinkle in her luminous blue eyes: "We are not going to give up!"

Larry, 57, Charlie, 59, and Mama Bessie drove to San Francisco four months ago, after being evicted from their Palm Spring apartment (an unscrupulous building attendant pocketed their move-in fee and rent money, and never turned it in to the building management).

Ever since arriving in San Francisco, they have been sleeping sitting up in their 1984 Chevy Caprice, a beat-up, 2-door coupe. If the car breaks down, it will be towed during street cleaning and the family will have lost all their possessions and only shelter. They first parked behind Saint Martin De Porres soup kitchen on Potrero Avenue, but were chased out by Mission police officers who banged their night sticks above Bessie on the car's roof.

This eventually led the family to seek shelter at CATS at 39 Fell Street in San Francisco, but the shelter refused to take them in, alleging that since the facility was not co-ed, Bessie would have to stay by herself somewhere else. "It is not my problem" stated the manager of CATS. "You can't stay here, goodbye."

Besides sleeping in their car, and after applying for HUD housing (where they found a six-month waiting list), the family has been placed a couple times in the drug-infested, infamous Columbian Hotel. Roaches were crawling on Bessie and her sons and sleep was not an option there.

They then parked in the Richmond District by the ocean, spending their morning at the S.F. Coalition on Homelessness in the Tenderloin District, and renting a motel room for a day once a month (all they can afford) to give Bessie a bath and finally enjoy a restful night.

The San Francisco Commission on Aging has been giving the family the runaround, suggesting that Bessie part from her children who are her trusted, loving attendants, and be placed into a hospice, which would surely plunge Bessie into deep depression and an early death.

Hospice would eat up all her income, leaving her with $50 a month to survive on. "Stick your Mom in a home and you can go visit her," was the message they received. Bessie, very astute and thinking with a sharp mind, adamantly refuses this tragic option. As Larry puts it, yelling in Bessie's good ear: "Mom! I told them you can't hear but you are not demented or senile!" Again, that beautiful, mischievous bright smile...

With a combined monthly income of $1620, the family is not eligible for decent medical insurance. Medicare does not cover most of Bessie's meds, including Prozac which costs $147 a month to relieve her very painful cellulitis. Larry lives in chronic pain, displays early symptoms of Muscular Dystrophy, and is losing eyesight due to a piece of glass lodged in his left eye socket, from an assault on his person when he was bartending. Charlie suffers from degenerative arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, disabling migraines and arrhythmia due to the use of Vioxx for pain control, and also is losing eyesight.

You can surely imagine that sleeping in a cold, rusty car, with rain seeping in through the roof, does wonders for their health.

Does Mayor Gavin Newsom care about the disabled and seniors in gentrifying San Francisco? His predecessor, "Da Mayor" Willie Brown, not only consistently refused to meet Mama Bessie, but had her forcefully removed from City Hall by the sheriff.

If this family had a place to stay, Bessie's sons could be her attendants at minimal wage through General Assistance, and would be able to receive Food Stamps, not a current option for the homeless. Who could ever take better care of Mama than her loving sons?

Bessie has 47 grandchildren, scattered all over the country. The family is sadly plagued with drug addiction; but brothers Larry and Charlie have been clean and sober for a long time, which organically prompted them to take care of their Mom.

Raymond, Bessie's oldest child, is dying, hit head-on by a semi truck. Her great grandchild, Tyler James, eight years old, was killed by drunk driver Mark Shifflet, a crack addict who hit T J at 70 miles per hour on Highway 175, in February 2001.

Charlie said, "T J was a sweet, wonderful boy. He had just donated his own toys to the Fire Department for poor kids! This hurts us so bad, Mom will never get over this..."

Larry, Charlie and Bessie have been constantly harassed and criminalized by San Francisco police. Recently, Charlie was sitting on Haight Street, trying to sell trinkets to survive, when a "baldheaded white cop" yelled at him: "You can't sit here, you are not allowed to make a living this way. No, you are not! If you sit out here I will give you a ticket and confiscate your stuff!"

At another time, while Charlie was selling comic books on the street, an officer ordered him: "Get these damn books up, you do not have a vendor's permit, or I will take them and give you a $75 ticket!"

Bessie insists on carrying a sign in her wheelchair and on the back window of their car: "My name is Bessie, I am 94 years old and still homeless."

The cops keep telling her that she cannot sit in her wheelchair on the street, and even when they rest in the sun in Golden Gate Park, they are constantly harassed. A "concerned citizen" called the cops about "two men exploiting their Mom to support their drug habit." Charles has been clean and sober for 30 years, Larry since 1994!

Larry said: "Elder Protective Services has been accusing us of exploiting our mother. Look at her, does she looks abused?" "Yeah!" Bessie jumps in. "Do I look abused? My sons do not set me up, I do this willingly!"

Officer Gretchen Parker and her female partner were more human and conceded, "It is not illegal to panhandle."

The Coalition on Homelessness has warned Park Station that the criminalization of Bessie and her children is unacceptable, and that the harassment must stop immediately.

When asked what she needs from San Francisco, she answers: "My wheelchair is rusting out, I need a new one! Cops: Leave me alone! Newsom: Give me a place to live with my children! Stop ignoring us!"

Charlie said, "We just want to be treated like decent human beings and not common trash! We need a decent home so that we can properly attend on Mom, and she can be cleaned, fed and loved as she deserves! Poor people have been giving her five, ten dollars at a time, while rich folks look down on her because she is homeless. She needs real medical care, a good, caring doctor and all her meds!"

Larry said, "I want to tell Mayor Newsom: What right do you have to attack people because they are homeless? What right do you have to send your cops to attack the homeless? Why so unconcerned about people trying to survive? Get your head outta your butt, Gruesome Newsom!"

You go, Mama Bessie and sons! We admire your courage and persistence, and you will get justice! Bessie, Larry, Charlie, your story is going to rock San Francisco and the nation big time. WORD!

Please Get Involved

The Idriss Stelley Foundation (ISF) is collecting donations for Bessie and her children to sleep and bathe in a motel until decent housing is secured! No donation too big or too small: Together we can end the nightmare, by donating what we can, and pressure the S.F. Hall of Shame to do the right thing!

Checks for Bessie Wilkerson can be sent to: ISF, 4921 3rd Street, San Francisco, CA 94124. You can call Larry Wilkerson at (415) 368-2261.

Please log on to Justice 4 Bessie Berger, set up by ISF, to show your love and support to Bessie, Larry and Charlie by e-mailing:

Watch "In my declining years," a video by PamPam Gaddies, director of SF Peacemakers, featuring an interview of Bessie. See

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