This story is part of HuffPost Impact's 12 Days, 12 Cities, 12 Families series, highlighting Americans who have persevered to overcome incredible challenges and the nonprofits that helped change their lives. Check back tomorrow for the continuation of this series.
Cruz Ayala was in her bedroom when her oldest child came in and told her that their apartment was on fire. "I came into the kitchen and didn't see any fire, so I went back to the bedroom. Then there was a big explosion," she described.
When Ayala came out of her bedroom again, the apartment was in flames and she rushed her oldest children out of the building. Then she went back in to get the rest of her six children, who were still sleeping in the burning building.
Everyone got out safely but Ayala's family wasn't able to salvage anything from the October 18 blaze. "No, nothing, nothing at all, we lost everything," she said. "The people at the apartment complex office never told me exactly what happened. We were taken to their office. They told us they were going to put us into another apartment."
The apartment was bigger than the last one, but it was the only one available, the complex told her. The office had her sign a new contract for another year with the understanding, Ayala said, that she wouldn't have to pay more than $499 a month in rent, the same as her last apartment.
With relief, she moved her family into the new apartment and tried to put the pieces of her life back together. She called her supervisors at the cleaning services company, which employed her as a housekeeper at a university in Houston. "I asked for a week leave without pay and they let me take it. But the next Monday, when it was time to come back to work, I was still not feeling well enough and I called my supervisor to ask for an extra week. They told me that if I didn't come in on Monday I'd lose my job."
She reminded them that she had never taken time off before, and that she always came in when she was needed. "I told them that I didn't have any clothing to go back to work and I needed more time to get in better shape, to buy shoes and socks, but they didn't want to give me more time."
So, one week after her home burned to the ground, Ayala lost her job.
No Resources, No Help
With no income and their most basic necessities lost in the fire, The mother of six wondered how she would provide for her family. Things went from bad to worse when Ayala, who only speaks Spanish, found out that the apartment contract she had signed actually obligated her to pay $699 in rent, more than a third more than the rent she was barely able to meet while she still worked full-time.
Impact attempted to clarify some of the details regarding Ayala's situation with the apartment complex's management. When contacted, the apartment manager, who identified herself as "Alma," said that the rent terms were clear when Ayala signed the new contract: "She knew what she was signing and now she's obligated to pay." The apartment manager also claimed the fire was caused by arson and that the complex was owned by a company called Notting Hill.
However, the manager's responses show some inconsistencies. The Houston Fire Department said the fire was ruled an accident. When Impact attempted to contact the apartment complex owners, the Texas Secretary of State confirmed that no such management company as Notting Hill exists in Texas.
Still In Need Of Basics
Ayala's family got their only break when one of the children's teachers caught word of their situation. The teacher was the wife of Giovanny Diaz, a board member with House of Amos, an affiliate of The Houston Food Bank. The Houston Food Bank feeds 80,000 people each week and works with 400 hunger relief agencies, like the House of Amos, in south Texas.
"When we realized the situation about the fire, we asked individuals to help her out," Diaz explained. "I took her to House of Amos and showed her how she was able to get some emergency pantry food. I introduced her to some of the board members. From that point, she was able to get Christmas toys, a Christmas tree, emergency food and some clothing."
However, the Ayalas' needs are still barely covered. Though they have enough food to keep going in the immediate future, the children lost all their school uniforms and have been re-wearing single sets of hand-me-downs until they can get more clothes and shoes.
Ayala's biggest worry is being able to cover the rent for the coming year. Even in the best of times in her previous apartment, she could barely cover the monthly bills and had little money left over for small luxuries. Now, with higher rent and no income, Ayala has no idea how she'll get back the life she had before the fire. "I'm not able to afford things for my children. They don't even have a computer anymore. I want to buy a computer for them, for school, but there's no way I'll be able to afford it."
In the meantime, she continues to search desperately for a new job. "It doesn't matter what, cleaning, working in a kitchen, cleaning houses, I just want to have a job," she explained dejectedly. The search for employment, paying her rent, getting life back to the way it used to be feels almost impossible to her right now. "Everything was burned. Everything was lost. Now I've lost my job," she said. "I feel so alone."
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