A crowdfunding campaign launched by the Mission’s Gray Area Foundation for the Arts yielded $900,000 for the victims of the Ghost Ship fire that killed 36 people on December 2– but with the two-month anniversary of the fire coming up next week, those funds have yet to be distributed, according to the East Bay Express.
The East Bay Express reported on Tuesday that at least one tenant displaced from the warehouse that housed some 20 artists and served as a workspace for many more told the publication that they had not received aid promised to them by the art and technology nonprofit, located at 2665 Mission St.
It’s unclear if others have received aid – in a press release issued by Gray Area on January 25, the organization confirmed that it had received some 400 applications for relief, out of which 136 were qualified. Intake forms continue to be available on the organization’s website until March 7.
The relief allocation will go to victims injured in the fire, the biological families of the deceased victims, and tenants of the warehouse that have been displaced.
“Of the 400+ forms already received, many have been fraudulent and have slowed down the process immensely,” the organization said in response to the delayed distribution, adding that it will request additional documentation from those who are eligible before the aid will be disbursed.
After the 22nd and Mission Fire on January 28, 2015, a private individual Zachary Crockett, launched a crowd-funding drive and raised more than $180,000 for the some 65 tenants displaced by that fire. A first distribution of that money was not made until a month later by the Mission Economic Development Agency.
Gabriel Medina, the agency’s policy manager, said he can sympathize with “a lot of Gray Area’s troubles.”
“They are dealing with 400 recipients, we were only dealing with 70,” he said, referring to another Mission fire at 29th and Mission streets that displaced some 70 people on June 18, 2016. The agency was again tasked with distributing the funds raised in a combination of community donations and a crowdfunding campaign.
Particularly with Crowdfunding campaigns, Medina said that the disbursement process can often be drawn out.
“You’re dealing with these private crowdfunding companies who have a long process for transferring the money and there’s also the optimism that you want to keep [the campaign] open as long as possible to continue to raise funds,” he said. Once a campaign is closed, the company first takes its cut.
“When you have all your eggs in one basket [with only a] crowdfunding platform, that complicates things,” he said. “But when you have checks [and donations] coming in from separate platforms, [distribution] is quicker.”
Additionally, there are legal implications that prevent a nonprofit such as MEDA and Gray Area from distributing the money directly to aid recipients.
“We can’t give direct cash to specific people,” he said. “If you’re just giving out money, especially for a nonprofit it, could endanger that status.”
Medina said that his agency learned a lot from the 22nd and Mission fire, after which it established the Mission Fire Fund, a disaster relief program, as a cushion for future fire relief.
Because processes were already in place and the agency had been advised on its legal rights of managing the relief funds after that fire, it was able to react quickly when the 29th and Mission fire struck.
The donations received for that fire amounted to $140,000, and tenants received an initial round of checks pulled from community donations a month later. Two more rounds of checks were distributed in September and in December, the remainder of a crowdfunding effort.
“There’s definitely a real urgency to get things out in the first month, that’s when funds are the most necessary – it’s a higher need period,” said Medina. While his agency managed to disburse funds to tenants displaced by both fires in a month’s time, he added: “There is no guide book for this” in support of Gray Area’s efforts.
MEDA also benefitted from a collaboration between various Mission housing organizations and the Red Cross, which allowed the agency to have access to the list of recipients quickly. Unlike the Ghost Ship fire, there were no casualties in the 29th and Mission fire, said Medina, which also facilitated the process.
“We didn’t need the next-of-kin information and already [received] legal advice from the 22nd and Mission fire,” he said.
Medina added that staff capacity could also be an issue for Gray Area, which reported hiring two employees and setting up a committee dedicated to managing the the Ghost Ship fire fund. At MEDA, staff time dedicated to helping the fire relief efforts and funding capacity allowed the agency to expedite funds for distribution while deposits from the crowdfunding campaign were still pending.
Gray Area launched its online fundraiser hours after news of the fire broke, with the initial goal of raising $10,000. That goal was notably exceeded, and the organization told the East Bay Express that efforts to connect with the displaced tenants and the families of those who were killed were initially stalled by East Bay government agencies, which refused to release the victims’ information until January 2.
As of January 25, the Ghost Ship Crowdfunding campaign remained open. Josette Melchor, Gray Area’s director, told the East Bay Express that distribution of the money will begin next month.
“There needs to be more systematic programming from cities and counties to develop this [process] so that the community can come together around [disaster],” said Medina, adding that he hopes governments will “look at how they can make these processes sustainable for non-profits.”