Evelyn Irving-Jackson’s olive-green Hummer takes up two of the four pint-sized parking spaces in front of the 1100-square-foot Trinity House thrift shop. The ostentatious gas guzzler seems incongruous, not only with the size of the lot and the run-down environment of the National City neighborhood but also with the purpose of the thrift shop itself: to benefit the nonprofit organization of the same name, which provides transitional housing to “underserved individuals and families in need.” But an afternoon spent with the Trinity House founder makes it clear that she doesn’t give two hoots about congruity.
“I’m definitely an anomaly,” she’ll tell me before the day is over. “I’m not the norm.”
True. Not everyone can boast bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer-software engineering, ten years of dedication toward a doctorate in information technology (“all but the dissertation”), and a history of overdoses, prostitution, jail time, and homelessness, all in the name of drug addiction.
Even her jeans and faded blue T-shirt are out of harmony with the ornate fingernails and toenails done up in gold and swirls.
At the moment, Miss Evelyn (“that’s what the girls call me”) sits upright in a rolling chair in the shop’s back office, telling me that, the way she sees it, “there is no black San Diego.”
Such a statement would not be unusual if preceded by, say, a glance at a tourist brochure for America’s Finest City. But coming from Miss Evelyn, it’s…odd. Black herself, the 49-year-old was raised in Skyline East, surrounded by a good part of San Diego’s six-percent-black population. Her friends growing up were black, and today, as she runs down a mental list of current friends, she says, “Vanessa, black. Julia, black. Susan, white, but she has a mixed daughter. She’s got a little jungle fever.”
And yet Miss Evelyn has considered moving her family someplace where the black community is more “cohesive.” Atlanta, maybe. Or somewhere in Alabama.
Recently, she and a new acquaintance (also black) who runs a nonprofit organization that was in need of a board member, decided to join each other’s boards, but it didn’t work out the way that she’d hoped.
“I was going to their meetings, but they never came to mine. It’s that type of thing.” This is what she means when she speaks of the lack of cohesion in San Diego’s black community. “I think, culturally, we just don’t work together the way some cultures do. When I look at other demographics, like Hispanics, they seem to live in the same house and work together. And even if they don’t go to college, they own the business that you’re [patronizing]. That’s a lot of power.”
Miles Davis’s “’Round Midnight” drifts through the shop from a boombox on a shelf in the office. The music’s moodiness doesn’t quite fit with the musty printed dresses and cluttered thrift-store atmosphere. (“We keep it on Smooth Jazz [KIFM/98.1] because they’re our media sponsor,” she says.)
Miss Evelyn takes a deep breath, exhales, and then launches into a brief monologue about the goodness of God, how she relies on Him to take care of her needs, and the miracles He performs every day.
“God has been faithful,” she concludes. “I know that this is His deal, it’s not my deal. I just show up and participate and make myself available.”
The “this” of which she speaks is Trinity House, begun by Miss Evelyn and her husband Glen six years ago. In addition to providing housing to homeless families, the organization also helps residents develop goals, budgets, and daily task lists as part of their transition back into independent living.
“It’s a challenge being the founder, executive director, case manager, accounts payable, accounts receivable, human resources, grant writer, you know — everything, and trying to have a family. We have four homes that we operate for the homeless, so we’re talking anywhere from 30 to 40 people who have issues. And their issues have issues.”
Because Evelyn and Glen believe in the importance of reciprocity, Trinity House residents have to “give back” ten hours a month, at least two of which must be spent working at the thrift shop. The other eight can include babysitting for another resident while she goes to a doctor’s appointment or soliciting donations over the phone. Other house rules include remaining clean and sober at all times and attending at least two self-help groups, anything from parenting classes or Bible Study to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. As simple as the Trinity House rules sound, not every resident complies.
“The people that we deal with are so raw and so unappreciative sometimes, and so harsh,” she says.
An older, light-skinned man in a white T-shirt and jeans comes through the shop and pokes his head into the office. His name is Edmond, and aside from Evelyn and Glen, he’s the sole employee of Trinity House. His hours are paid for by a Community Options program, which employs seniors and hires them out to government agencies and nonprofit organizations. Edmond asks what Miss Evelyn wants him to bring in from her car.
“There’s a bag on my front seat, and then you’ll see a chair,” she says. “Anything that’s not Mary Kay.”
As she flaps her hand in the direction of the Hummer to indicate where Edmond will find the donations, a giant pink gemstone on her right ring finger catches the light. She’ll later tell me it was a prize for recruiting 14 new Mary Kay beauty consultants in one month. Half of those 14 are Trinity House residents.
When Edmond leaves, we continue our conversation about the Trinity House residents.
“A lot of them call me Mom,” she says, “and sometimes I am Mom: ‘How come there’s dishes in the sink? How come this? And how come that?’ Some of them can run you down and make every issue they have your issue. I’ve really learned how to set boundaries.”
Until this moment, her round face and frameless glasses have given me a serious, motherly vibe, but now, as she discusses her residents, the formality of her posture collapses and gives way to a demeanor that’s less church, more street.