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September 13, 2005

Investigating shelter complaints

We're back in Baton Rouge this morning. After dropping Kyle off at the airport, we went to visit a couple of shelters in the nearby town of Baker.

We and our NAACP host recorded video statements from two Red Cross volunteers who were concerned about racial discrimination against shelter residents. Their primary complaint was about the unequal allocation of access to goods in the distribution center. It seemed to them that white families were getting preferential access to the donated items at the distribution center. Complaints through Red Cross channels provoked retaliation from the local Red Cross managers. One of the volunteers is being sent back to California with a bad evaluation, which means that she won't be allowed to work for the Red Cross again.

Much more information is needed to determine the scope of the problems we're hearing about. However, the lack of transparency at the Red Cross is a significant barrier to further investigation.

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Can you post a transcript of the interviews?

There's a whole diary about problems with the American Red Cross over at Daily Kos. I'll try to link it to this thread, but I'm not much of a techno geek.

http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2005/9/13/141651/070

Here is the link to the Kos diary. Apparently there's been problems with AMR all the way back to 9/11. They were accused of holding donations back for future disasters, when all the donations were supposed to go to the families of victims of 9/11.

ghostcatbce

I had heard that one before, and I have to say it's a complaint I don't quite get.

As far as I understand it, (most) money given to the Red Cross goes into a big pool, only 'cause I can't see how they would keep track of why people gave them money, except in certain circumstances (checks, large fundraisers). The can at Blockbuster or at my bank may say that Red Cross needs the funds for the tsunami or the hurricane, but they have no idea if that's why I gave.

With that in mind, I myself would actually be more upset if they felt the need to continue paying out large chunks of money to people who had lost family members in a tragedy when the money could go to starving people in order to prevent more tragedy. But maybe that's just me.

I had heard about the Red Cross problems with the 9/11 survivors before as well. Also an old firend worked with them in DC and I heard a lot of stuff that makes me uncomfortable with them.

I sent my donations to the Salvation Army because a family member was in a train wreck in Canada in winter time. It was the Salvation Army who showed up, provided hot meals, passed out blankets and warm clothing. No religious sales pitches, no soup kitchen arm twisting, just a lot of sincere folks walking the talk as they say.

In the gulf states they have 150 mobile kitchens providing 600,000 meals a day to disaster victims. Guess I trust them.

A lot of the criticism of the American Red Cross comes from misunderstandings as to how the organization functions. While most of what the ARC does is provide relief in local disasters (floods, fires, etc.), they do try to capitalize on large-scale disasters for fundraising purposes. Funds not specifically earmarked for the disaster in question go into the general fund, and any aid not covered by contributions earmarked for this disaster are paid out of this fund.

In the wake of 9/11, the ARC collected more than $500 million in funds, mostly given to the general fund. When you think about what the ARC does (shelter, clothing, food, emergency medical care, etc.), it's hard to see how they could have spent that much on a disaster of this scale. It seems like a much more prudent use of the funds would be saving them for a disaster on the scale of Katarina.

Many donors thought that their general fund contributions would be earmarked for the survivors of the 9/11 attacks, so they were outraged to find that about half of the $500 million would not be handed to these survivors. In response, the ARC developed a policy of being more explicit about donation options, so that those who want their money to go only to victims of a specific disaster can be sure that this happens.

The Daily Kos complaints that the ARC is not airdropping relief supplies or providing relief are off the mark. The ARC does not do airdrops, and they don't do search and rescue. They also don't go into areas where the authorities have told them not to go. Right now, they're badly overstretched, paying for thousands of hotel rooms and operating shelters for 300 or more evacuees with as few as 3 volunteers to run them.

The Kos complaint that Republican donors are allowed to serve on the board of the American Red Cross seem downright silly.

Van Bergen's Raw Story article seemed fairly nonsensical to me. Efforts to coordinate ARC relief through FEMA are presented as if they are ominous, to the point that the piece seems to veer into Black Helicopter territory. Van Bergen even asserts that the ARC "is officially part of the Bush Administration's national security apparatus," because the ARC coordinates its large-scale relief efforts with FEMA.

While it's true that 8 of 50 board members chosen by the U.S. President, this can hardly be seen as sign that the ARC has become an arm of the government. This arrangement was meant to facilitate coordination efforts, and has no effect on most of the operations of the highly decentralized ARC.

Remember, most of what the ARC does is respond to disasters like the one described by Flint. They coordinate with police and fire departments, as well as non-government organizations like the Salvation Army. Most of their clients are poor or working class, and the Red Cross provides emergency food, shelter, clothing, and medical care to victims.

Every community evolves its own emergency relief apparatus. When an apartment building catches fire, the local fire department contacts whatever local organization provides disaster response. That organization either provides aid directly or works with other charitable organizations and the local government to ensure that victims get what they need. In most American communities, the organization that the first responders call is the American Red Cross.

Unfortunately, local chapters may be run by people who are racist or incompetent. We don't know the full story behind the allegations presented in the post, but I wouldn't be surprised to find that the ARC has a chapter that needs to be cleaned up.

Reading the Daily Kos and Raw Story pieces, though, I couln't help but find irony in the fact that so many of the people who are concerned about the victims of Katerina are working to undermine the organization that provides and coordinates most of the disaster relief in this country. The attacks center either on the practice of providing only the relief needed for disasters like 9/11 and keeping a reserve fund for disasters like Katerina, or on silly non-sequitors like the political affiliations of boards members. Instances of discrimination, waste, or fraud should be investigated and exposed, but these two stories don't even allege any of those things.

Thanks, Gordo. Excellent comment.

I remember hearing that the ARC was diverting funds collected after 9/11 and thinking, "Good." Those who complained about it seemed to be saying, "I don't want my money going to aid those who need it most."

Considering all of the horror stories I've heard about other charities, I still prefer the Red Cross. If it is possible to "damn with faint praise", then I think that the Red Cross has been praised with faint condemnation.

I WANT TO MAKE A COMMENT WELL COMMENTS ABOUT THE SITUATION I WAS IN AT ONE OF THE RED CROSS SHELTERS IN HUTTO TEXAS, MY FAMILY AND I WERE DISRESPECTED FROM THE MOMENT WE ARRIVED THERE THE SCHOOL WHICH WAS HUTTO MIDDLE SCHOOL WAS FULL TO CAPACITY AND WE WERE STILL LEFT THERE I COULD NOT BELIEVE THAT THE RED CROSS HAD SO MANY RUDE VOLUNTEERS, BUT THE ONES THAT WERE VERY HELPFUL AND KIND WERE COUNTED A LADY FROM NEW JERSEY AND A LADY FROM NEW YORK. WERE OUR ANGELS I WANT TO THANK THEM FROM THE BOTTOM OF MY HEART FOR HELPING MY FAMILY AND FOR BEING HEAVEN SENT ANGELS I FEEL THEY SHOULD BE RECONIZED FOR THEIR KINDNESS AND WILLINGNESS TO HELP OTHERS. PLEASE IF YOU CAN HELP ME FIND THESE KIND LADIES, SO WE CAN EXTEND OUR THANK YOUS.

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