94 and Still Homeless

PNNscholar1 - Posted on 28 August 2010

A family in poverty, Larry, Bessie and Charlie, vs. the System and Poli-tricks

Marlon Crump/Poverty Scholar/POOR Magazine
Tuesday, October 24, 2006;

The walls are covered by a collage of pictures of people who have fallen as a result of San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) violence; mostly black youth and youth of color whose lives were stolen and cut short. Set within the walls is a feeling of revolution and liberation and also a deep sadness.

The Idriss Stelley Foundation (ISF) is a safe haven as well as an underground railroad for people who have been brutalized by the SFPD.

Idriss Stelley was shot and killed by SFPD at the Sony Metreon on June 13 2001, "48 shots, 9 officers, as he stood alone in an empty theater." A shrine to Idriss is set in one part of the room. Mesha Monge-Irizarry, mother of Idriss Stelley started the Foundation. Mesha is a phenomenal woman. She is truly a privilege to be around.

For the past month Mesha, myself, and many others have been meeting to plan the march on October 22nd against police brutality. It was at these meetings that I first met Bessie Berger and her two sons, Larry and Charlie Wilkerson. Bessie is 94 years old, Charlie is 59, and Larry is 57. They are living homeless in San Francisco. Bessie and her sons had come to the meetings to voice their concerns and tell their stories of harassment by the SFPD.

Like Bessie and her family, I have dealt directly with police brutality. This past Saturday marks the one-year anniversary of a traumatizing assault committed against me by the SFPD in my own home. On October 7th 2005 twelve armed police officers broke into my room at the All Star Hotel. The All Star Hotel failed to protect my rights as their tenant, which is a part of the long legal battle that I am currently caught up in. The SFPD wrongly accused me of a crime I did not commit and entered my room in the early hours of the morning. This is only one example of the kinds of police brutality that I, and many others, living in Single Room Occupancies (SRO's) have had to endure. The stories Bessie and her sons tell are all too familiar.

Mesha and Myself met with Bessie, Larry, and Charlie at the Idriss Stelley Foundation to hear their story.

Bessie is in a wheelchair and is in dire need of a new one. She has trouble seeing and hearing. Both of Bessie's legs are severely swollen. Bessie is a small, gentle woman of incredible spirit and she does not let her age slow her down. Bessie was well respected by the motorcycle gang, The Hell’s Angels, who referred to her as "mama." Bessie's family tree extends from a nineteenth century U.S. Navy Admiral named Allen Schley to Edgar Allen Poe.

Larry and Charlie are both silver haired men. Larry speaks from the heart and he has a stern voice. Charles has a more joking character and ads a comic sense here and there. Their voices contain anger and frustration. They are both tired.

Larry and Charlie are true examples of one of The Ten Commandments "Honor thy mother and thy father." Larry and Charlie's great concern is the well being of their mom. Bessie is bathed daily by her sons either from The City's resource facilities for the homeless or from a one night hotel room that they obtain from the little money they have. They continue to care for her even while under the pressure of the harshest of times economically, socially, and politically.

Larry and Charlie are both strong, capable men. They are able to care for their mom but they too are having health problems of their own. They are unable to care for themselves because most of their money goes towards the care of their mom. Bessie only receives a combined total of $800 a month, half of which goes towards her Medicare, she is left with only $400 a month.

Larry, Charlie, and Bessie have only been back in San Francisco four months. They briefly lived here in 2001 during the administration of Mayor Willie Brown.

Four months ago they lived in Palm Springs, California. Both Larry and Charlie worked industrial jobs to support their mom, each making $6.25 an hour. They worked opposite schedules so that while one was working the other one was taking care of their mom.

They lived in Palm Springs and faithfully paid their rent on time. They paid the standard cost of first and last months rent, and the security deposit that totaled over $1200. The building attendant took their move-in deposit and rent, never submitted a receipt, and never turned the money into the management. As a result of the building attendant's criminal conduct they were evicted by the property management. Bessie and her sons immediately brought a legal action upon the management, but they were unsuccessful and the case was mysteriously ruled out.

The All Star Hotel's handling of my situation on that fateful night last year was similar in its complete disregard for my wellbeing. Being evicted from your own home or having twelve unannounced police officers with guns burst into your room are experiences no one should ever have to endure.

Losing practically everything they had Bessie and her sons sought food and lodging from relatives. Bessie in the past had always welcomed family into her home and cared for them in their times of need. Now in need herself, Bessie asked her relatives for help. The same relatives she had always housed and fed would not take her and her sons in. Larry recalled their situation with anger.

"They did not care for one of their very own who had cared for them when they all had nothing! It really breaks our hearts but we've managed to survive this long. Someone will help us, I hope," Larry concluded sadly.

The family also endured a heart shattering loss of a loved one. In 2001 while staying in Lake County, Bessie's great grandchild, eight year old Tyler James was killed by a drunk driver, named Mark Shifflet. Shifflet struck down Tyler while driving at 70 mph. A California Highway Patrol (CHP) officer arrived at the scene and astonishingly allowed Shifflet to leave the scene of the accident. The accident occurred on Highway 175 in Middletown. It was later discovered that Mark Shifflet had previous D.U.I arrests. But on this tragic night Shifflet was never given a sobriety test. The release of Shifflet was criminal negligence on the part of the CHP officer. The family lost the case in court and Mark Shifflet and the CHP officer walked away unscathed and unpunished.

I am also waiting for the day in court where I will see legal action taken on my behalf for the criminal conduct that was committed against me by the SFPD at the All Star Hotel.

Bessie, Larry, and Charlie have had to endure much harassment and abuse. In 2001, Bessie and her two sons approached Mayor Willie Brown, to seek his help in obtaining services. According to Larry and Charlie "We did nothing wrong, we didn't provoke him, we weren't aggressive. We just wanted him to direct us to the right facility to care for our mom because we were all homeless. He says he didn't like the way we looked and he immediately called security to escort us out. That really hurt us a lot, because we felt he could really help us."

Shortly thereafter, the family caught sight of Mayor Brown at an event in front of City Hall. They again asked for his help and Mayor Brown showed the same discourtesy towards them as he had done before. They have not received any different treatment from the current administration.

They recently tried to seek refuge at the Salvation Army but the director refused them entry because of Bessie and her age. Larry and Charlie told the director, "Look, she's 94 years old, ma'am. We'll be damned if we have to separate and put her in some nursing home. We know all about the evils of neglect in those kinds of places. She is our mother and we are not leaving her to be mistreated!" The director looked at all of them, with a cold and scornful glare, then replied, "I don't care, ok? She's not our damn problem or fault. She should be in a nursing home and not with her sons."

The response by the director of the Salvation Army towards Larry and Charlie is a prime example of the "Western" notion and belief in individuation. Dr. Wade Nobles, a tenured professor in the Black Studies Department at San Francisco State explains individuation in POOR's fourth issue, "MOTHERS" in the article "The Nature of Mama."

Dr. Wade Nobles says,

"I believe that capitalism and much of the construct in Western psychology emerge out of the same philosophical grounding, and that philosophical grounding is based on the idea of separateness, distinctness, domination, fear, and exploitation. So, capitalism is just the economic system that parallels individuation as a psychological system. It's not that it promotes it, it certainly does reinforce it and allows for it to exist, because individuation would never challenge some of the precepts of capitalism. Capitalism says I've maximized my profits, minimized my loss; in order to do that, I have to exploit others. I won't exploit others if I believe that others and I are the same. So if I believe in individuation, then I certainly have a free license to exploit others."

Larry and Charlie are committed to staying with their mom and caring for her themselves despite what the dominant response is,a committment which like my editor Tiny says, is supported and practiced in POOR Magazine's indigenous family organizing model for poor, and/or homeless families trying to survive and thrive in the US.

Bessie and her sons have been living out of their car. Their car has countless miles on it and they dread the day that it will no longer work. If their car breaks they would be forced to find storage for all of their personal belongings or lose everything.

Since our meeting an unfortunate event occurred. On Sunday October 15 their car was broken into, the registration, all their ID papers, and social security information is gone. This is an unusual theft and they are devastated.

They have continually been harassed in Golden Gate Park by the SFPD. The SFPD have intimidated, verbally assaulted, and insulted them. On one occasion an officer yelled, "No you are not suppose to know or do anything, but be like you people already are, poor and uneducated!"

Bessie, Charlie, and Larry have had to struggle to be triumphant against the criminalization of poverty. As Tiny Gray-Garcia at POOR magazine said, they are Poverty Heroes.

In closing the interview Mesha and I asked what they wanted San Francisco to do to aid them in their needs. Bessie replied, "I only want the city to please help me and my sons out. I also want the city and the mayor to order the police to leave us alone, because we are not hurting anyone. We just want to be helped and not disrespected."

Since the time of our meeting with Bessie, Larry, and Charlie on September 30th at the Idriss Stelley Foundation a short video was created of their situation, and can be viewed at

http://www.current. tv/studio/media/13670557?

You can view Mesha's article about Bessie and her sons at the Idriss Stelley Foundation's website:


The Idriss Stelley Foundation (ISF) will be hosting a benefit, after the November elections, for Bessie and her sons, which will help to purchase Bessie a new wheel chair.

You can make donations to Bessie and her sons by sending a check to:

ISF, 4921 3rd Street, SF,CA, 94124, attn:Justice4Bessie

ISF also donated a cell phone to the family. You can call Larry Wilkerson at (415) 368-2261 (415-DOT-CAMI). You can also log on to Justice 4 Bessie Berger, set up by ISF, to show your support, by emailing




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