In the winter of 1984, artist Pat Berger learned that the American Red Cross planned to erect two enormous tents near Los Angeles City Hall to help feed the homeless for Christmas. She went downtown to investigate and began talking to the men, women and children standing in the long lines snaking out from the overcrowded tents onto the sidewalks. She approached two men and asked permission to photograph them. They agreed — on one condition: she had to shake their hands.
“I said, ‘Of course,’ ” Berger recalled. “I realized they just wanted to be part of the human race. It’s such a solitary life. I knew I wanted to get involved, and I decided to do a consciousness-raising statement through art.”
Berger, who will turn 90 in March, called up this memory during an interview at the Dortort Center for Creativity in the Arts at UCLA Hillel, where 18 of her 35 paintings inspired from that period of her life are on display. The exhibition, simply titled “Homelessness,” may consist of images created in the mid 1980s, but the scenes they depict remain alarmingly timely.
At the exhibition’s opening on Jan. 24, the Dortort also hosted Berger’s longtime friend and fellow homelessness activist Ted Hayes and a series of speakers from UCLA and neighboring facilities, who considered ways to confront the topic of homelessness.
After that Christmas encounter 34 years ago, Berger got to work. She met regularly with the residents of Hayes’ Tent City and Skid Row, and conducted more research of homeless people living by the beaches. She worked extensively with Hayes, who at the time lived on the streets and who she helped get office space in the Bradbury Building downtown. She also spent time with film maker Gary Glazer, who featured her work in his documentary, “Trouble in Paradise.”
“I spent five years down there, and there were so many stories,” Berger said. “It was the most exciting time of my life. For five years, that was my beat.”
As Berger advocated, she also painted, creating a series of 35 acrylics and lithographs depicting people and scenes meant to be neither glamorous nor gut-wrenching. Among them, a group sits at a half empty table in Venice consuming “Christmas Dinner”; two boys holding soda cans wander amid the clutter of boxes and containers in “Home for a Day”; and a woman sits guarding rows of “Donated Shoes.”
“I think it’s important for our community. This is where they do their Shabbat dinners. I want them to understand that they live in a very privileged society — except, of course, those who are homeless.” — Perla Karney
“She was a toughie,” Berger said. “I would go down and sketch and take pictures when I could. I had to be careful, because if they didn’t like it, they would chase me away. Some of them were people who would never go into shelters. I don’t blame them, really.”
The works were first exhibited in the cafeteria of the Weingart Center for the homeless on Skid Row. In the ensuing years, they have traveled the nation and are filling a very specific function at the Dortort, according to the center’s Artistic Director Perla Karney.
“I think it’s important for our community and for our students to have an in-your-face kind of thing,” Karney said. “This is where they do their Shabbat dinners. This is where they have their lectures. This is where they are confronted with these paintings. I want them to understand that they live in a very privileged society — except, of course, those who are homeless.”
This region has a turbulent history with homelessness, according to data compiled by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) and the California Housing Partnership Corporation. According to homelessness counts between 2010 and 2017, the number of homeless people across Los Angeles County increased from 38,700 to more than 55,000. In March of 2017, voters approved a tax increase to fund $3.5 billion to address homelessness over the next 10 years. The effects of that financial boost are still being determined, but the number of homeless in Los Angeles County decreased by 4 percent in 2018.
Local universities are by no means exempt, including UCLA, which operates the Bruin Shelter for homeless students. During his opening remarks, Hillel’s Executive Director Rabbi Aaron Lerner said that approximately twelve students from the shelter made the rounds of Westwood area churches in search of a place to live. Turned down multiple times, they ended up in Santa Monica, housed several miles away from their educational base.
Lerner evoked the theories of Eli Ginzberg who, during the heart of the Civil Rights movement, insisted that Jewish organizations “must first, foremost and always be concerned with the deepening, furthering and survival of our specifically religious Jewish values.”
“I’m left wondering about accepting the challenges of [Ginzberg’s] words from more than 55 years ago, when there are parking lot programs that are available for the city to make space for people who have cars but have no homes, when I have space that’s not used at night,” Lerner said. “What am I really willing and able to do? I don’t have a good answer for you.”
“Homelessness” is on display at Hillel at UCLA, 574 Hilgard Ave., Westwood. For more information, call 310-208-3081 or visit uclahillel.org/now_on_view.