“We’ve had to evict people that we’ve helped, and we’ve had women want to fight me, women calling me out by name.” She raises an eyebrow. “There have been times when, before I knew it, I was taking my earrings off and kicking my shoes off. I’ve had to learn to temper my spirit and to not let anybody rile me.”
And, no, they’re not all black. In fact, there are times when she’d like to emphasize that point.
“When we have events and stuff — we’ve had a lot of television coverage — I don’t want to always be up there with a black girl [when drawing attention to the issue of homelessness]. You’d be quite surprised. Right now, we have three white girls, two Hispanics, and two black residents at Trinity House. It’s such a melting pot.”
Not too long ago, one of the “white girls,” whom she calls “a cutter,” tried to commit suicide and had to be taken to the emergency psychiatric ward.
“When those situations happen, we refer them to a crisis house or another organization that can deal with their immediate psychiatric needs. I have to constantly assess our risks and exposure and do what’s best for the house as a whole.”
Miss Evelyn’s education in handling the tough cases came from her relationship with her own mother, a teacher who taught at Freese Elementary School in Skyline East for 36 years.
“I grew up in Skyline. I grew up in the ’hood, but because my parents were both educators, I had more of an upper-middle-class upbringing. I had all the things a lot of people didn’t have.”
Despite the material security, she started smoking marijuana at age 12. From there, her drug use progressed to cocaine and then crack.
“I found myself from the age of about 25, 26, up until I was about 31, walking up and down the streets, prostituting, doing whatever I could do to get drugs. I had heard of Skid Row, but one day I looked up, and I was on Skid Row. I was in downtown Los Angeles by myself. I was gone. Out of it.”
After failing to “rescue” Evelyn a few times, her mother started going to Nar-Anon meetings (“for those affected by someone else’s addiction,” the Nar-Anon Family Groups website reads).
“Before that, I would steal from her, manipulate, steal things out of her house, whatever I could do, She wouldn’t let me live with her, but she’d pay for me to have a place. She’d say, ‘You can’t live with me, but I don’t want to see you on the streets.’ When she finally learned tough love, it saved my life. That meant no more money. Don’t come knocking on my door. I don’t want to talk to you. I don’t want to hear from you. I’d get arrested, I’d be in jail, she wouldn’t accept my calls.”
The deal was, Evelyn could have her mother back if she went to rehab. And in 1992, after extradition from Los Angeles to San Diego, where she served 60 days for writing $6000 worth of bad checks, she finally acquiesced and went to a rehab house called Kiva — for seven months. She has been clean since.
Miss Evelyn looks at me straight on, without blinking, and repeats, “That tough love saved my life.”
To emphasize the point further, she tells me about her mother’s best friend, who had a son Evelyn’s age. He also became heavily involved with drugs, and unlike Mrs. Irving, his mother did not set boundaries.
“That mother could never say no to her son. She would get up at three o’clock in the morning, go find him, give him money all the time. I don’t care how many times he stole from her or what he did to manipulate. When I was in rehab, he was murdered. His throat was cut. When I look back on that, I know my mom saved my life.”
Miss Evelyn stands up from her chair and reaches toward the wall behind me. She removes a thumbtack from a collage of magazine words and pictures pasted to a piece of cardboard.
“Let me show you this. It’s something I made when I was in rehab.” She flips the collage over to reveal her name handwritten above a number. “That was my number: 1411.”
At a quick glance, it would be easy to mistake the collage for a visual affirmation. The words “achievement” and “expectation” stand out, as do pictures of black men, women, and children. But on closer examination, I see the words, “agony” and “shorter life” as well. The assignment, she tells me, was to reflect on her life and what she was feeling and then to make a collage.
“I was projecting all the different things from my past and my future, and what’s so weird about it is that everything came true.”
She directs my attention toward several pictures: a row of old, clunky computers; a black father-daughter couple sitting at a table; a heavily made-up woman standing in front of a serious-looking man; the word “abortion” spray-painted on a wall.
“Look,” she explains, pointing to each in turn, “I ended up getting my degree in computers. I’ve got my husband and one daughter. This was me when I was prostituting. I’ve had abortions.”
When I ask why she keeps it hung on the wall, she says, “It’s just so special to me. I was on drugs in L.A. I woke up in the hospital eight times in one year and didn’t have a clue as to how I’d gotten there. I would wake up and be strapped in, IVs in my neck and in my feet. So this is a reminder. It humbles me that God would even see me worthy to do this work.”
A long, lanky-limbed man with light eyes and dark shiny skin excuses himself and slips between us to grab a folder from one of the desks. Miss Evelyn introduces him as her husband Glen whom she met at Kiva. In 1994, they married, and the next year, she gave birth to her daughter Kiva.