Amy’s Story

Amy thought her family might not make it out alive.

Amy and her family were targeted by gangs after she made a police report. They endured multiple death threats and even one shooting. She tried to request an emergency transfer to a safer unit, but her request was rejected. She thought that she and her family were trapped until she met Open Door Legal.

Amy 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.

Amy and her family 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 Amy 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 her daughter learned to walk then crawl then run, Amy was afraid she would fall and land in feces or on a needle. Trash and glass littered the sidewalk. She tried to befriend 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.

When she brought these complaints up to the property managers, they 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 was her neighbors’ attitudes toward Amy. She was seen as a snitch. “They threw rocks at my window and threatened to attack my husband for [cleaning and calling the police].”

Amy and her family began to show signs of anxiety. Sometimes her daughter 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 Amy walked outside and were confronted by their neighbor. He pulled out a gun and threatened to shoot. Amy thought – this is it. This is the end.

Her husband 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. Amy 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 Amy 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, Amy 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 Amy push forward their relocation case. She spent hours on the phone, at the police station, and in Amy’s home gathering evidence on the harmful ramifications of living in fear. She even visited the 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 Amy 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 Amy’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, Amy 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. Amy twirled her daughter around the living room and they both giggled as Mallie ran back into her arms. They were home. They were finally at home.

Ever since childhood, our co-founder Adrian has been dedicated to reducing poverty.

He studied systemic poverty in college and went to work in the field for a few years. Eventually, he had a thesis that legal aid was the most cost-effective way to address poverty in America. He wrote up a business plan and used it to apply to law school. 

The idea was to create the country’s first system of universal access to civil legal representation that ensures everyone can obtain timely, competent legal help for any legal issue, regardless of ability to pay. That had never been done before in the history of the United States.

In law school, he met Virginia, our Programs Director. Together, they co-founded the organization, two weeks after Adrian passed the bar.

When we opened we put a sign in the window, and with just that marketing and almost no other outreach we were overwhelmed with requests for help from people with good cases who had been turned away everywhere else.

Our first year we had revenue of $35,000. We would hand shred documents because a shredder was too expensive. Despite the financial challenges, we were able to work on over 280 cases in everything from housing law to family law to consumer law in the first year alone.

The hours were extreme, the pay was low, and the learning curve was steep. Still, we persisted. We knew that almost everyone we helped was not able to receive services anywhere else. Eventually, we attracted the interest of funders. We tripled our revenue for several years in a row. In 2015, we won the Bay Area Google Impact Challenge, which enabled us to expand even more. In 2019, we secured additional funding from the city that allowed us to open two new centers in the Excelsior and Western Addition.

As of 2020, our staff has grown to 27 full-time employees. We’ve shown that universal access is possible. Now, we plan to scale city-wide, make San Francisco the first city in the country’s history to have universal access to legal help, and become a model for national replication.