Ariel thought her family might not make it out alive.
Ariel refuses to give up.
Ariel looked out her window: morning was breaking over the bay. She breathed a sigh of relief; it had been another sleepless night. She swung her feet to the floor and trotted over to Mallie’s crib. As she picked up her three-year-old, she caught sight of the window overhead. That window – the one with the bullet holes in the left corner. She closed her eyes, pressed her daughter to her chest, and prayed that the transfer application would be seen today.
Ariel, Mallie, and her husband Tomás had been living in Potrero public housing for three years. “It was a nightmare from the start.” They were assigned a home in a back alley, far from public view. “Every night we lived in fear of bullets and gangs. People were murdered outside my front door. People defecated on my sidewalk.” The worst part was the darkness. Six months after Ariel and Tomás moved in, the lights outside of her home stopped working. They never knew what or who was waiting for them outside their door.
Daytime was not much better. As Mallie learned to walk then crawl then run, Ariel was afraid she would fall and land in feces or on a needle. Trash and glass littered the sidewalk. She tried to befriend with the maintenance workers, but they were wary of the block. Her neighbors had forced the workers to pay them in order to clean the mess.
Almost as soon as they moved in, Ariel began to visit the property owners to request an emergency transfer. She didn’t ask for much. She just wanted to be in a more visible location, with a clean sidewalk and outside lights that worked. She didn’t mind staying in the Potrero Public Housing as long as she wasn’t tucked away where no one could help her.
However most of the time, the property managers told her there was nothing they could do. “They said, don’t be the victim. Show yourself to the people. Stand up for yourself. Collect police reports if something happens.” So that’s what she did. She collected a whole file of police reports and stored them on top of her refrigerator.
Months passed, and the only thing that changed were her neighbors’ attitudes toward Ariel and Tomás. Ariel and Tomás were seen as snitches. “They threw rocks at my window and threatened to attack my husband for [cleaning and calling the police].”
Both Ariel and Mallie began to show signs of anxiety. Sometimes Mallie would scream uncontrollably or refuse to venture outside. “It was hard as her mother. I had to be strong for her and not show fear. But we were both so afraid. It’s terrible to watch someone so little, so innocent, feel that way.”
Then, one evening Ariel and Tomás walked outside and were confronted by their neighbor. He pulled out a gun and threatened to shoot. Ariel thought – this is it. This is the end.
Tomás convinced the neighbor to let them walk away and they escaped. That night, the couple had a frank conversation about what would happen to their daughter if either or both of them were killed. “I had no hope. I thought, we’re going to die here.”
I had no hope. I thought, we’re going to die here.
The next day, the unthinkable happened. Ariel heard a knock on her door. Against her better judgment, she decided to open it. Outside were three people from an organization called Open Door Legal. “I thought they were trying to sell me something, but they seemed really nice so I let them in.”
The trio was a group of volunteers from one of Open Door Legal’s outreach teams. They asked Ariel about her experience living in her current housing placement and told her that an attorney might be able to help her expedite the emergency housing transfer. “In that moment, I had faith for the first time,” she remembers.
Less than a week later, Ariel and Tomás sat across a table from Zoe Brown, Open Door Legal’s housing attorney, at the 3rd Street office. “Zoe was so kind. She made me feel like there was someone who wanted to help me rather than take advantage of me.”
Upon hearing their story, Zoe began a six-month process to help Ariel and Tomás push forward their relocation case. She spent hours on the phone, at the police station, and in Ariel’s home gathering evidence on the harmful ramifications of living in fear. She even visited Mallie’s school to learn from her teachers about the toll it was taking on the child. Once the evidence was ready Zoe went to bat for Ariel with the SFHA for another four months.
Zoe was so kind. She made me feel like there was someone who wanted to help me
rather than take advantage of me.
Then, on a foggy day in August, Zoe got the call. SFHA agreed to grant Ariel’s family a transfer. “I couldn’t believe it when I heard the news; I almost didn’t want to. I called everyone – Tomás and my mom – everyone. They were relieved. I’m grateful. I’m so, so grateful.”
On November 10th, 2016, Ariel carried her daughter into their new unit. She checked the windows – no bullet holes. She glanced outside and saw lampposts gleaming overhead. Then, she looked across the street and saw young families playing on a clean playground. Suddenly she realized she was crying and laughing all at once. Ariel twirled Mallie around the living room and they both giggled as Mallie ran back into her arms. They were home. They were finally at home.