After her Fifth Ward home was filled with more than three feet of water, Helen Mott and her husband and grandson were evacuated by boat. Returning before repairs could be done was out of the question, and so Mott and her family shacked up with relatives who gave them a place to stay.
She heard about the $400 immediate assistance program of the American Red Cross, which appealed to her as she got tied up waiting on FEMA while still not having her own home to sleep in.
Within a matter of days, the Red Cross got back to her: "Not Qualified," she read in big red letters at the top of a cookie-cutter email that did not bother explaining why.
On Thursday, Mott joined The Metropolitan Organization — a faith-based group that has stood up for various underserved communities in Harvey's aftermath — to call on the Red Cross for answers.
"What I am concerned about is the merit of what determines the qualifications," she said from a podium inside the chapel at New Pleasant Grove Baptist Church. "I'm not understanding why I and so many others were denied. This money could have been a very big help."
According to The Metropolitan Organization, Mott is one of more than a hundred people who have complained to church leaders about problems receiving financial assistance from the Red Cross and FEMA — but mostly the Red Cross, TMO leaders said. And surely it's a complaint that has echoed across Houston, as some people are approved while their neighbors with debris piles just as high on the curb are rejected.
"The Red Cross is doing very important work. They're gotten many donations. But we want to make sure that the money is getting to people who need it most and not getting tied up in bureaucratic red tape," said Dr. Charles Turner, pastor at New Pleasant Grove Baptist.
His colleague, Georgia Provost, a TMO leader who attends Our Mother of Mercy Catholic Church, was just a little more blunt: "The Red Cross is always front and center soliciting donations, but now it's time for the community to see where the money is."
According to the Red Cross, as of September 28, the organization has doled out more than $148 million in financial assistance, reaching more than 370,000 households in Texas. In Harris County alone, more than 198,000 households have received more than $79 million in immediate relief.
The Red Cross said in a statement that this is proof the charity is doing good work.
"These numbers make clear that the American Red Cross is keeping its word to make emergency funds available to those who meet the criteria," the organization said. "We understand that residents are frustrated with the process but we are now seeing people once denied going through the appeal process and being approved."
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SHOW ME HOW
So what exactly is the process? It's hard to tell, based on the criteria, how the Red Cross has managed to prioritize those who are the most adversely affected. Here's what applicants do: They give their name, contact info and address, their household size, what type of housing situation they currently have (their own home, friend or family's home, FEMA temporary housing), whether their home was severely damaged (yes or no), whether they were displaced for more than three days (yes or no), whether they need emergency assistance with things like food, water, school supplies or clothes (yes or no).
Argentina Matute, another churchgoing member of TMO, said in Spanish that she had lost her car, that her apartment was flooded — and, now, with her children going back to school, her life still a mess and the rent due, the $400 would have gone a long way. But she was denied, too.
"For many, $400 may seem like very little, but for someone who lost everything," Matute said, "this could have been very beneficial to me and my family."
Both women, Matute and Mott, said they appealed the decision last weekend and were told they would hear back in 72 hours. They have yet to receive a reply.