Nov 7 2:56 PM

Red Cross workers: Charity changed eligibility after promising Sandy aid

America Tonight

Rosaline Fernandez and her three children live in a tiny apartment. It’s all the high school Spanish teacher could find – or afford – after Superstorm Sandy ravaged her Jamaica Bay home on Long Island, N.Y., a year ago. The bay water met the ocean water, soon destroying her car, the furniture inside her home, her kids’ clothes and all the food.

“The first floor was completely washed out,” Fernandez told America Tonight. “There was mold. There was water. There [were] funky smells.”

Months of living in a hotel came and went before Fernandez heard that the Red Cross could help her out. She said she spoke to a caseworker who told her about the Move-In Assistance Program, a program that has helped nearly 3,000 households, according to the Red Cross. She said that the caseworker explained how Fernandez would be eligible for money to move into a new place and that all of her household items would be replaced. The Red Cross told Fernandez that she was eligible for $10,000. Once she found a new home, all she had to do was submit a W-9 tax form and the application, and she’d be set. Months later – and now more than a year after Sandy – she has not received her Red Cross aid.

The Red Cross raised $308 million to help the victims of Sandy, more than any other agency. It created the Move-In Assistance Program to help people get back to their homes, or find new ones. But for Fernandez and an estimated 1,000 other Sandy-devastated households, they were denied badly needed assistance they say they needed it the most.

In a report on Thursday from America Tonight, correspondent Sheila MacVicar looked at the people who were denied aid that had been promised to them when the Red Cross suddenly changed its eligibility criteria.

“There are hundreds of people across New York that all have the same story, that were all told they would be assisted or they’re eligible for assistance, and did homework for the Red Cross,” said Ben Smilowitz, founder of the Disaster Accountability Project, a nonprofit aiming to improve transparency in relief organizations. Smilowitz, a former Red Cross volunteer during Hurricane Katrina, said that many people affected by Sandy “jumped through hoops, took days off work to collect information, and then only to find out that they weren't eligible in the first place.” 

Changing eligibility

Tom Clemens of Freeport, N.Y. is one of hundreds of homeowners who say they were promised assistance by the American Red Cross after Hurricane Sandy, only to have their claims denied. Here, he shows America Tonight's Sheila MacVicar some documents.
America Tonight

In the weeks following Sandy, the Red Cross launched its Move-In Assistance Program. Workers in New York told America Tonight that they were instructed how to interpret the program criteria. Each case passed through multiple layers of approval until May.

“The eligibility criteria changed so drastically,” a Red Cross employee told America Tonight.

In an internal document obtained by the Disaster Accountability Project, the Red Cross laid out talking points for caseworkers to use on families who had been disqualified for aid after the drastic changes to the eligibility criteria. One question reads, “Why was a review of the Move-In Assistance Program enacted on May 6th?” According to the document, the answer stated: “We are committed to being good stewards of donated dollars and regularly evaluate our work. We conducted a review as part of that due diligence and to ensure that open cases are following program guidelines.”

The Red Cross worker, who wished to remain anonymous, said that, in general, he believed that the humanitarian organization attempts to be a good steward of donors’ dollars.

“However, the decision that was implemented on May 6 didn’t seem to have anything to do with that,” the worker told America Tonight. “There were clients who had received a commitment from the Red Cross for money to assist them in recovering from the storm, but then were deemed ineligible. That’s not assisting clients. That’s not directing the donor dollar where it should be. That’s lying to the victims of the storm and survivors of the storm.”

The Red Cross insists that the program criteria has been consistent since February, but that’s not what Red Cross workers say. America Tonight spoke to several former workers and one who still works there. They told MacVicar that after May 6, there was so much confusion about the program that they were ordered to not speak to their clients. Some Red Cross workers were so upset about telling clients they were no longer eligible for assistance that they quit their jobs. None of the current or former Red Cross employees who spoke to America Tonight could say for sure why the change was made, knowing only that it came from upper management.

Broken promises?

Around the same time the Red Cross was disqualifying hundreds of families who believed they were eligible for Sandy aid, the charity publicized one of its success stories: a 95-year-old woman who was able to return to her damaged home due to Red Cross money. But this could have been a very different story. Two caseworkers told America Tonight that under the changed criteria, the woman, as well as many others who had already been awarded assistance, would have been deemed ineligible and denied funding.

Smilowitz has collected the stories of dozens of Sandy victims who were promised – and denied – funding by the Red Cross.

“I’ve never seen this type of behavior from a relief organization,” Smilowitz said. “I mean, an organization that’s supposed to be helping people and has a track record for helping people having this type of mess-up.”

The current Red Cross worker who spoke to America Tonight said that there were hundreds of cases that involved a caseworker giving a positive indication to a client that their case would move forward, only to have the case be frozen.

The criteria changes got the attention of Congress. This past summer, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) wrote a letter asking the Red Cross for an explanation of the criteria changes to the program. In September, the Red Cross told congressional staff members that they would review and make good on cases where promises were made. A Red Cross spokesperson reiterated that position to America Tonight.

“If clients believe they were promised assistance by a Red Cross caseworker and our documentation supports this, we will honor their request, even if they do not fully meet program criteria,” the spokesperson said.

Lingering questions

Standing on one of the most damaged streets in Long Beach on Long Island, New York Attorney Gen. Eric Schneiderman said that the Red Cross would contribute additional millions of dollars to help Sandy victims.

“They are working to correct some problems and go back and review cases where people might have been denied relief where they should have gotten it,” Schneiderman said last month.

But there are still lingering questions about the criteria. Take Laura DiVito, who has had her case reviewed – and was denied a second time.

“I’m hoping my boilers will hold out,” DiVito said to America Tonight, “and if they don’t I will borrow money. I’ll use my credit cards again.”

Recently, DiVito was told that she was now ineligible. The reason? She said it was due to the fact that she didn’t stay in a hotel paid for by the government after Sandy. One issue that was overlooked, however, was that she has a cat, which would have been one of the exceptions the Red Cross should have allowed since most hotels don’t allow pets. The criteria also fails to consider those people who stayed with family or friends, or the victims who stayed in their damaged homes to protect them.

Even as other victims such as Fernandez are trying to move on, there’s a sense of uncertainty that’s still present. Fernandez said she feels that door after door has been shut on her and her family, adding that the refusal of the Red Cross to help is what hurts the most. She remembers the phone call she received, telling her that the Red Cross aid wasn’t coming after all.

“It was wrong,” Fernandez said. “I thought it was wrong, and I said that to him. “I said, ‘You know this is unfair.’” She added: “There was never that idea that I was not going to be eligible. There was never that conversation. It was always, ‘You have met all the requirements to make you eligible,’ and then, all of a sudden, the requirements change and now, you’re no longer eligible.”


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