As It Happens

Homeless L.A. woman with angelic voice says she's overwhelmed by public's support

Emily Zamourka went from sleeping on cardboard on the streets to fielding job offers, phone calls and tens of thousands of dollars in donations, thanks to a viral video of her solo performance in a Los Angeles subway station.

Emily Zamourka became homeless after medical bills piled up and her prized violin was stolen

In this Monday, Sept. 30, 2019 photo, Emily Zamourka who is homeless sings at the Wilshire-Normandie station in Los Angeles. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via AP) (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/The Associated Press)
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Transcript

When Emily Zamourka recently began singing at a subway station in Los Angeles, she wasn't doing it for attention. She was singing because of her lifelong passion for music.

But the homeless woman did get attention, and a whole lot of it, after L.A. police posted a video of her singing an aria.

They posted the video on their Twitter account, where it's since been viewed more than 960,000 times, and subsequently landed her a performing gig with the city.

"I never knew that somebody was going to get so thrilled by that. I didn't plan on anything when I was singing," Zamourka told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"I wasn't expecting all that, so yes, it was a surprise."

A GoFundMe page online, verified by the crowdfunding site's Twitter account, has so far raised $53,368 US (more than $71,000 Cdn) to pay for housing for Zamourka.

Health problems, medical bills, violin stolen

While not classically trained, Zamourka said she always loved opera.

"I've been singing since I was two years old. Two and a half, maybe. I was, of course, not singing the arias, but I was singing whatever song every child could sing," she said.

She told the Los Angeles Times that she came to the United States at age 24 from Russia, where she learned violin and piano. She lived and worked in Missouri and in Washington state, where she offered piano lessons.

Zamourka said in 2005, she suffered serious health problems from a failing pancreas and liver and had to be hospitalized. She eventually returned to teaching music in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale and played violin on the streets for extra money.

In this Monday, Sept. 30, 2019 photo, Emily Zamourka, who is homeless, emerges after singing from the Wilshire-Normandy subway station in Los Angeles. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via AP) (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/The Associated Press)

But several years ago, the violin, which Zamourka said was worth thousands of dollars, was snatched and broken.

She fell behind on rent, her medical bills piled up, and she eventually found herself homeless.

'She's going to be the main attraction'

When Branimir Kvartuc, spokesperson for L.A. Councilman Joe Buscaino, first saw the video, he immediately took action.

"We thought, 'Oh my god, let's get her to perform. Like, she's brilliant,'" he told Off.

Kvartuc invited Zamourka to perform Saturday at the opening of L.A.'s new Little Italy district.

"She was thrilled, but we were thrilled even more than she was, that she would even consider coming down to perform," he said.

To Kvartuc, the situation is emblematic of the wider homelessness problem facing Los Angeles and California at large.

"We're trying to house 30,000 homeless in Los Angeles. There's nearly 60,000 in the county and there's 130,000 people homeless people in the state of California," he said. 

He said the governor should call a state of emergency to get everybody housed.

A man stands in front of a homeless encampment, with the Hollywood sign in the background, on Sept. 23, 2019 in Los Angeles. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Kvartuc says the city is working with GoFundMe and the local women's centre to help find housing for Zamourka.

"She'll be living in her own apartment very, very soon," he said.

"Emily is on track to be a working professional, and she is very much looking forward to working in the entertainment industry and booking jobs."

Zamourka has had many offers of free violins as well. But she declined them, saying she wants to play a violin as special as the one that was destroyed, KABC-TV reported.

She said she always wanted to be a working artist, but also knew that she would need support. And now with the help of L.A. police, city officials and the thousands of people who heard her voice online, she's well on her way to properly chase that dream.

"Yes, I am excited. And I'm ready to make it happen. All the way."


Written by Jonathan Ore with files from The Associated Press. Produced by Rachel Levy-McLaughlin.

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