Why there are no Red Cross shelters in New York City

November 15, 2012: 6:22 PM ET

The relief organization isn't permitted to set up shelters in New York City, thanks to a snarl of bureaucracy and red tape. Meanwhile, 20,000 residents remain displaced after Sandy's devastation.


Cleaning up destroyed homes in Sandy's wake.

By Katie Benner

FORTUNE -- What has been conspicuously absent from the areas of New York City hardest hit by Superstorm Sandy are shelters set up by the American Red Cross, an organization that as part of its mission statement provides shelter in times of disaster. The organization states in its shelter operations manual: "When large groups of people are temporarily displaced from their homes, the American Red Cross responds by opening and operating shelters."

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, the Red Cross held several emergency training sessions for shelter volunteers (I attended a November 2 session), telling classes that they needed to plan for a three-day stint away from home and be able to lift heavy loads.

But that shelter operation never came to pass, and volunteers were told that the Red Cross would not be needing shelter workers. In the meantime, images of New York City's many devastated neighborhoods filled nightly newscasts; and the housing situation for many New Yorkers grew increasingly dire. The city has estimated that between 20,000 and 40,000 residents could be homeless or forced to live in unheated homes with no running water or power. The conditions are particularly deplorable in the high rises that dot the landscape near the waterfront in Brooklyn and Queens. About 5,200 Staten Islanders have applied for FEMA housing, but according to the New York Post only 24 or so have been placed.

Criticism has rained down on the Red Cross for not providing places for this mass of displaced people to live, but it seems that the aid organization is not permitted to set up shelters in the city due to a snarl of red tape.

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The shelter system in New York City works hand-in-hand with the city's public schools, according to city officials who spoke with Fortune. (The city has a network of dozens of shelters in schools across the five boroughs; only 7 are currently open.) The only people with access to the schools are city employees, and so the shelter system can only be operated by the city.

The Red Cross has been invited to work in the shelters, but as anyone who has completed the organization's shelter training can tell you, the Red Cross only places staff to work in shelters that operate under Red Cross rules.

An email sent to the Red Cross last week about this issue was never returned. According to city officials, the Red Cross is currently helping to move people from the city's existing shelters and into alternative housing.

"The city is trying to not have shelters be a permanent housing situation," a city official says. "Instead, we are trying to find longer-term living conditions that residents can sustain on their own. When necessary they could receive emergency disaster assistance." Residents being moved to so-called longer term arrangements include the full range of people displaced by the storm: those who lack power and heat, those who are temporarily displaced as they wait for contractors and officials to inspect their homes, and those whose homes were destroyed. The official declined to say what this longer-term housing might look like.

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It's understandable that the city wouldn't want to create a permanent class of residents that lives in shelters, but that doesn't explain why the Red Cross can't start providing additional facilities given that the organization makes clear that it opens shelters as a temporary measure.

And for the tens of thousands who have been living for weeks without heat, running water, electricity, and in some cases homes, the strange relationship forged between the city and the Red Cross has literally left them in the cold.

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