'I’m Worth It': How An Unhoused Woman Learned To Live Out Loud
Sumaiyya Evans loves the studio apartment she’s lived in for a few months. On a blistering sunny day when temperatures in downtown reached 90 degrees, it’s a comfortable 77 degrees and breezy in the Venice neighborhood, a 15-minute walk from the beach.
Her “perfect size for me” apartment is in a building offering permanent, supportive housing with wrap-around services. It's furnished with a twin bed covered in colorful pillows, a nightstand that has a reading lamp and a two-person dining table where a fresh bowl of fruit rests.
Art she’s created or collected covers almost every wall of the apartment, including the spacious bathroom. A collage of photos of her two grandchildren hang on a wall between the kitchen and bed.
“When I was homeless, I carried them with me along with birthday presents for them until I could see them,” said Evans, beaming with pride.
Evans, 66, spent over 20 years of her life falling in and out of homelessness between Oregon, Washington, and California. Her most recent stint was for a couple of years at the Pacific Sunset Bridge Home, an interim shelter near Venice Beach that opened in February 2020.
Evans said she was one of the last people to get a bed in the 154-bed facility before widespread lockdowns over the coronavirus happened a month later. Her focus at the facility was staying sober and coordinating with case workers at People Assisting The Homeless (PATH), who operated the shelter, to help with her transition to permanent housing.
Today her routine is much different. Evans said she wakes up around 5 a.m. every morning, makes a cup of tea and breakfast. She dances around her apartment for exercise or goes on a bike ride. She plans what meals she wants to make for people still living on the boardwalk. Today, it’s baked yams she got from a food bank that would have gone bad if she didn’t take them. Even though she is housed, she remembers what it was like, and insists on staying involved with the community. Especially for the girls and women who find themselves living on the streets.
Evans said she is grateful she has a place where she can lock her door and get a good night’s sleep in a comfortable bed.
“My apartment is dope,” Evans said. “I'm sober and I feel like I have a purpose.”
Purpose is what other people living on the streets need as well, said Evans while sitting at the kitchen table of her apartment. She starts to look around and smiles.
“I don't know exactly how much you have to pay to subsidize me to be here,” Evans said, speaking of the billions of taxpayer dollars that have been invested into the homelessness crisis. “But I want to believe — and I feel like I'm gonna tear up — I want to believe that I'm worth it.”
As the race for mayor heats up in L.A., tempers are flaring among housed and unhoused residents. Enforcement of the city’s anti-camping law is ramping up and people are exasperated over the slow moving progress to alleviate homelessness. Evans' years-long journey to housing is a sobering reminder of the importance of community, the need for patience and the value of investing in people.
Who Is Sumaiyya Evans?
Sumaiyya Evans was born Cindy Evans in a small town in Oregon. She loves the wildly popular dance called The Electric Slide. She loves vivid colors. She found herself unhoused for the first time at 12 years old after fleeing sexual, physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her stepfather.
“You can imagine all of the stuff that happened to me,” she said, adding that’s why she changed her name: asserting a new identity to replace one she felt was stolen from her.
Evans said that ‘stuff’ included sex work along with periods of heroin and opioid addiction. It wasn’t until she turned 21 and was preparing to give birth to the first of her two sons, that she was able to get her life back on track and stay sober while raising them. But she couldn’t outrun her past, and misdiagnosed medical issues along with prescription painkillers led to relapses.
Living Out Loud With Art As Therapy
Evans first appeared on my radar after I saw Melissa Gregory Rue’s film, Live Out Loud, a documentary that followed three people without a home in Portland, Ore., who were making films to help them begin the process of healing from childhood trauma. Evans was one of those filmmakers.
Rue followed Evans as she made her first film called Home Free, which detailed her experience with homelessness and the impact being what Evans called a “single-parent welfare mom” had on her two sons.
Rue told me that she was interested in following Evans and the other film subjects because she believes art can be therapeutic for people healing from trauma.
“Filmmaking in particular is a very reflective process,” Rue said. “I was curious how these people were going to change, or if they were going to, and what kind of change would occur over the course of the program.”
Rue also documented the experience of them making their first films because she hoped other cities would begin to invest in similar programs after showing the positive impact it made in the lives of unhoused people.
“What I observed watching the program over a year is that people who are without homes have their self-esteem just trampled over and over and over,” Rue said. “If they can't regain their self-esteem, a sense of hope, and a sense of possibility for their lives to move forward, they're not really going to be able to come back and be part of society that you know. They're going to struggle.”
Rue said that she realized while filming that people experiencing homelessness suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and society looks at them as if they’re useless. Mental health experts say that PTSD is widespread and often overlooked among unhoused people and although there are no national statistics on PTSD among this group, there are studies that focus on the trauma faced by unhoused women, highlighting the widespread sexual assault they experience.
“Art can really give people so much self-esteem to say, look, I'm not just this person that's got a tent on the street,” Rue said. “I'm painting or I'm making a film or, you know, I have something to contribute to society.”
Evans' contribution was making Home Free. Her documentary feels like a love letter to the family she was hoping to reconcile with. A bridge in Oregon, under which Evans would dance the Electric Slide with her small children and grandmother many years ago, plays a central character throughout the documentary. Throughout the film, she expresses the hope that one day her (now) adult sons and grandchildren will join her again under that bridge.
“What it did is it brought me back to a time when I felt empowered, felt like I had worth,” Evans said. “It gave me hope that, you know, I still had value, and it helped me to raise my head because I'd been looking down for so long. I hadn't looked up or listened to music or did anything that normal people do until I made that film.”
Evans' sons don’t show up to dance the Electric Slide in the film. She said her relationship with them was strained at the time because of their upbringing. Something she’s struggled with a lot.
“I can’t hurt myself for not being the mother they needed in their life,” Evans said in Rue’s documentary. “I just want to be respected again by my children. Yes, I may have done some things on the street to survive or get my drugs. But I’m not doing that anymore. Those are the things I want to say to my sons.”
The Ties That Bind
Ten years later, Evans now speaks regularly with her youngest son and her grandchildren. But she doesn’t know where her oldest son is. Evans said it’s been years since she spoke to him and she believes he’s now struggling with substance use and the trauma of losing a childhood friend to fentanyl overdose.
She believes he will come around one day and they can all move forward as a family together. She often thinks about unhoused people who are still living on the streets, disconnected from family and friends. That’s why community is a big theme in her life these days.
She remembers how, when she was living on the streets of Venice, she desperately wanted to be part of the electric light bike rider community, a group which rides every Sunday along the boardwalk at sunset with electric lights strung around their bikes.
“I was just like, man, I want to do that,” Evans said. “I got a bike and when I was part of the community, they were kind to me. I had been so alone and suicidal for so long. I was so inspired.”
Evans has now found community at her apartment building, where many of her neighbors are also formerly unhoused. There’s a community room where people can take various classes. There’s a community garden. The neighbors know each other and sometimes hang out in the communal courtyard. There are case managers on site who believe in the future of the residents. Evans said that’s exactly what she needed to move forward with her life.
When the pandemic forced businesses to shut down, Evans said she’d hoped the economic losses caused by the pandemic would help bring housed and unhoused people closer together.
Over the years, Evans said she successfully started small businesses and there would be periods she would be doing well economically and keeping it together. An ongoing medical condition or childhood trauma resurfacing could possibly mean a relapse and send her spiraling. She thought people would finally get a glimpse into what it was like to lose their livelihoods in the blink of an eye.
“Now you can understand how I felt in my life when the rug pulled out from underneath me,” Evans said she would think. “I think that there can be a lot more understanding now about homelessness and people in the general public, you know, will be able to say, ‘wow, you know, they aren’t just lazy, f*cking bums.”
Among the housed in Venice, however, — where the average home price is about $2 million — there’s no shortage of residents on apps like NextDoor complaining about the proliferation of RVs and tents in the neighborhood.
It’s also in the middle of a heated city council election, with homelessness a major point of contention.
Mike Bonin, the council member leaving at the end of his current term, has been resolute about finding solutions to house people, advocating for less criminalization, and often voting against his council colleagues on measures like the anti-camping enforcement.
The battle for his replacement boils down to two candidates: Traci Park, who sees the homelessness as a “dystopian nightmare” where “violent crime is spiraling off the charts” and Erin Darling, who sees the unhoused as “working class people” who are the victims of “low wages and expensive housing” and “not the product of some moral failing.”
Evans knows who she wants to vote for. She wants a leader who has a consistent track record of helping the community, and to see barriers removed so people on the streets can access shelters that aren’t littered with rules that take away their dignity.
But she understands how the red tape that accompanies getting people off the street can be frustrating even to those who want to help.
“Chiseling away at homelessness and poverty is slow because it's huge,” Evans said, adding that the growing fentanyl crisis isn’t helping. “I think no one person can do it alone.”
Evans would like everyone to take a step back, acknowledge each other’s humanity, and remember that we are all in this together.
“I was on the brink of suicide,” Evans said. “I'm so grateful I didn't pursue it to the end because I would have left five minutes before the miracle. Hate doesn't get us anywhere. We have value. Invest in us.”
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