How do you envision your life at 97? For one woman, life is lived in the front seat of 1973 Chevrolet Suburban with her two sons, spending the days panhandling and scrounging for social services. Bessie Mae Berger is homeless.
Homelessness for Berger is a combination of personal circumstances and government policy. As the story unfolds, we see the Berger struggling with the day to day realities of both homelessness and poverty. The family is able to get by because they are supported by state and federal programs:
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.
However, the meager amounts are not enough to provide stability. I wondered what the deal was with Berger's two grown sons - why were they all in the same position as their mother? The article explains that both sons have their own issues:
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.
The story hints at other personal issues that are not covered. After all, if Larry is a home health aide, why is he not able to find employment in that sector to help with expenses? And what about Berger's other six children?
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.
Questions aside, this article is new take on policy issues of state support and how it is applied. For example, take the issue with receiving Section 8 housing:
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 Berger's have a complicated story. Clearly, there where times in which the state has dropped the ball on providing needed services. The Bergers may be entitled to more benefits than they currently receive, and it was the closure of another state program that thrust them into homelessness.
However, there are many parts of the story that still remain a mystery. What happened between Bessie Mae and her other six children? Why are they no longer in contact? And why would her sons not want their mother to at least have a place to rest, even if they cannot share the space with her?
Unfortunately, in situations like this, there are no easy answers.