She was a 13-year veteran of the Postal Service, where she worked as a mail handler. At 46, she had raised six children mostly by herself and was a grandmother five times over. But a violent episode outside her home in East Harlem left her traumatized, robbing her of energy and her ability to work, she said.
"It was Aug. 8, 2008," Ms. Perez said. She and her son LilLinzell, then 14, had returned from an afternoon at a local pool when she pulled her car up to the curb outside her apartment complex. She left her son there and ran upstairs to drop off a bag.
When she came back down to park her car, she found that it had been moved. She saw the frightened look on LilLinzell's face and turned toward a four-man construction crew fixing the sidewalk.
As she approached the men, one, apparently angry about where she had left the car, hopped off his Bobcat and hurled curses at her.
"He looked like one of the dudes from "The Sopranos,' " LilLinzell said.
Then the man began swinging his fists at Ms. Perez. As the building's maintenance men and some of the construction workers tried to stop the man, he went after them. Ms. Perez called the police, but her attacker heard and punched the cellphone out of her hand. He pressed her against a nearby car and beat her; her head hit the car after each punch, LilLinzell said. He jumped on the man, he recalled: "I had to hit him really hard to get him off my mom."
Ms. Perez later learned that her attacker was the son of the owner of the construction company that was fixing the sidewalk. One of the workers who had come to her aid told her that the man had moved someone's car with a forklift the previous day.
The man pleaded guilty in the attack and was sentenced to six months' probation. Ms. Perez said she learned he had received a diagnosis of a mental illness before her encounter.
Ms. Perez sued his employer and won a settlement, which mostly went to pay the bills that piled up after the attack, when she was unable to return to work. She also gave $100 to each of the men who had come to her defense.
The settlement did not take away her knee pain, neck pain or migraines, or stop her right side from swelling. "There's not enough money in the world that can make me feel better," she said.
Painkillers make her too drowsy to function, she said; she still walks with a cane.
A Section 8 subsidy takes care of all but $400 of the rent on her apartment, but without her $51,000 annual salary, she fell several months behind on bills. There was also her daughter Sarah's college tuition and LilLinzell's Catholic school tuition. Her car was repossessed after she could no longer make the payments.
Yet she waited until January 2010 to apply for disability benefits. "I really had in my mind that I was going to go back to work," she said.
Ms. Perez now receives $829 a month, plus $123 each for LilLinzell and her youngest son, Dimencio, 13.
Ms. Perez is not the only one damaged by that day. LilLinzell has "changed a whole lot," she said. "He feels like it was his fault, like he could have done more."
When LilLinzell began disappearing for days at a time, Ms. Perez sought counseling for him at the Dunlevy Milbank Center in Harlem, which is operated by the Children's Aid Society, one of the seven agencies supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund. The counselors there noticed that Ms. Perez was also in need of therapy; she is now taking antidepressants.