Douglas’ Story

Douglas was defrauded and denied housing.

After an accident at the San Francisco Shipyard, Douglas was suddenly disabled, out of work, and falling further and further into debt. He became the victim of several scams and ultimately was rejected for housing. He had lost hope until he found Open Door Legal. Working with our partners at The Salvation Army, we were able to resolve his consumer, family, and tax issues and help get him into housing.

Thanks to a mother who was determined to instill her children with a strong work ethic, Douglas started working in construction at an early age. Beginning with a stint at Pier 39, Douglas found steady work in constructing the first housing projects in Fillmore, Hayes Valley, and other parts of San Francisco. In 2013, he went to the San Francisco Shipyard in search of what should have been “just another” carpentry position with the Department of Public Works. But as Douglas stood waiting for his dispatch, a 6×12 beam tumbled from the nearest building and hurtled towards him. His world went black.

The next thing Douglas remembers is waking up in a hospital with a concussion, back injuries, and neck injuries. The extent of Douglas’ injuries meant that he would have to wear a neck brace for a year, undergo physical therapy, and end his work in construction. Douglas would receive disability income, but not enough to cover his child support.

Without a court order, Douglas’ child support obligations were never adjusted to reflect his reduced disability income and he accrued over $25,000 in debt. At the same time, Douglas had trusted members of his family to file his taxes during his recovery. It was only when he got a notice for back-taxes amounting to several thousand dollars that he realized that they’d been defrauding him all along.

It’s not just for legal work, they offer more than that… They make you feel like they love you.

Douglas’ bad luck continued when he signed up for a program that promised to solve the problem of his back-taxes. The program scammed Douglas and collected over $6,000 from him without doing any work on his case.  Thanks to the cumulative debt that resulted from Douglas’ back-taxes and what he owed for child support, Douglas’ driver’s license was suspended and his application for new, subsidized housing was rejected.

Douglas came to Open Door Legal for help with modifying his child support obligations, and was struck by how friendly and hospitable the team was. Working together with our partners at The Salvation Army, we appealed the denial of Douglas’ housing application and got a court order that modified his child support to a manageable level; clearing his debt. After resolving his child support obligations, we resolved his back-tax issues with the IRS and even worked to get compensation for the tax scam.

“It’s important to see people helping you out in your own neighborhood, and [Open Door Legal] is right in our backyard.”

With his debt resolved, Douglas won the appeal on his housing denial. He now lives in a newly constructed one-bedroom apartment. He looks forward to sharing his story with those who may not know where to go for legal help, and helping Open Door Legal reach more people across the community. When asked what stuck with him most about his experience, he pauses then laughs. “They make you feel like they love you.”

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.