MILWAUKEE -- The American Red Cross of Wisconsin is facing accusations of racism and favoring the wealthy because of a new policy in Milwaukee that forces predominantly black and Latino fire victims from low-income areas to travel to receive the organization's volunteer assistance.
The decision to have fire victims go to their nearest police station or Red Cross office rather than for volunteers to visit them at home is due to a staff shortage, the organization's Milwaukee chapter said. Officials there said it plans to expand the policy citywide, but have provided no timeframe.
Elected officials criticized the rollout in late December.
"The optics of it is classic red-lining. It's not simply a race issue. I would say it's a class issue," said Alderman Khalif J. Rainey, who represents one of the ZIP codes affected by the new policy.
The group's national headquarters on Tuesday issued a statement apologizing for "any misunderstanding as it was absolutely not our intent to offend anyone."
The agency said it wants to use the volunteers it has more efficiently and have them meet victims at a warm and safe location. The Milwaukee chapter characterized the new policy as a temporary fix, but did not say how long it will take to recruit more volunteers and restore previous service.
The Red Cross provides fire victims a place to sleep, food and water, health services including mental health, and help filling out prescriptions among other things.
"The Red Cross will continue to help any person in need after a home fire, regardless of their ZIP code," the statement said.
It was not clear Tuesday if the policy has been implemented elsewhere in the country.
More affluent and largely white areas downtown and along the city's lake shore were not part of the initial rollout.
"When people looked at the map as to the areas that were not being served, I think that raised questions," Mayor Tom Barrett said Tuesday after meeting with the Red Cross' regional chief executive, Patty Flowers.
The Milwaukee chapter has said the initial 10 ZIP codes it chose were simply the busiest. They spanned the majority black north side of the city and southern neighborhoods largely populated by Latinos. In one ZIP code on the north side, 53206, nearly half of the residents live below the poverty level.
Some of the ZIP codes first selected also have among the highest crime rates in the city, leading some aldermen to speculate that the Red Cross may also be concerned about volunteer safety. Flowers said volunteer safety is always a priority but that it wasn't the driving factor in the policy change.
"I just don't have enough volunteers," Flowers said. She said the number fluctuates and could not immediately provide a breakdown of how steep the decline has been. Southeast Wisconsin has about 365 volunteers, she said.
Barrett said he and Flowers spoke about race, although "not necessarily racism," and "the need to make sure that low-income people who are the victims of fires, that they also receive the same treatment that others receive." He said they're looking at the issue as an opportunity to recruit more volunteers.
Alderman Robert Donovan, who represents a majority Latino district in the southern part of the city, said there's no substitute for having "someone there on site when you need them the most."
"But I can certainly understand the position they're in if indeed it's come down to just fewer and fewer volunteers," he said.
Donovan said he and other aldermen have asked Red Cross representatives to speak with them Friday morning in City Hall to hear more about their new policy.
"I think it had probably more to do with safety concerns on the part of volunteers," he said, despite Flowers' comments. "It's difficult, when you're dealing with volunteers, you can only ask so much of them."