Thursday, October 20, 2005

An object lesson

in the problem of "faith based charities":

When Katrina evacuees started arriving from New Orleans, St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church in Sunnyside opened its doors even though it wasn't a designated Red Cross shelter.

Since then, it has provided about 60 evacuees with three meals a day, transportation and a place to stay.

But neither the Federal Emergency Management Agency nor local government has reimbursed the small church for the $12,000 spent on evacuee care.

At least 125 local churches and nonprofit agencies find themselves in similar predicaments. After taking in evacuees, they are worried that they do not have enough money in reserve to pay for operating the shelters as well as ongoing monthly expenses.

The situation is so dire for some that they are worried about utilities being shut off, said a spokesman for a church coalition.

They point the finger at FEMA, saying it has set up a reimbursement process rife with bottlenecks and red tape.

"We're doing this because we're Christian and it's the right thing to do," said Shirley King, assistant manager of St. Paul's activity center, site of the shelter. "The mega churches get all the recognition. What about the little churches that are spending all their resources?"

FEMA spokesman Charles Henderson said it has established a reimbursement procedure that requires nonprofits to verify expenses and obtain FEMA disaster-relief numbers or Social Security numbers for evacuees.

The process isn't meant to be onerous but does have some built-in safeguards.
This is precisely what most churches cannot afford to do: they cannot afford to front the costs of taking care of others, especially on the scale of a disaster like Hurricane Katrina. Now, sadly, they will find themselves caught in a web of promises from Bush, who promoted "faith based charities," and the bureaucratic reality of accounting for public monies and how those are spent. FEMA promises money will be allocated; the County promises money will come in two to four weeks. And this all sounds very familiar:

The Rev. D.Z. Cofield, a spokesman for Healing Hands, a coalition of about 25 churches formed to help Katrina victims, said he has been hearing for some time that reimbursements will arrive in several weeks.

Meanwhile, employees at small churches and nonprofits are wondering whether they will have electricity the next day, he said.

"Many of them have seen utility bills quadruple in a month," said Cofield, pastor of Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church, which runs a distribution center for donated goods.
Ultimately, it is a question of responsibility. Local churches responded to an overwhelming crisis, to a human need. Many which did not qualify as shelters under Red Cross guidelines (which automatically qualifies them for FEMA funds), helped anyway. Now, the issue is: who should pay? The small church, or the federal government? And should it be such a bureaucratic nightmare?

Nonprofit administrators were anxious enough about the reimbursement issue to arrange a meeting with local and FEMA officials at the County Administration Building last week.

FEMA officials advised them to submit requests to the county but added that nonprofits should cover all bases by sending a similar submission to the state Division of Emergency Management.

Cofield said many administrators and pastors are becoming impatient because the submission process keeps changing.
And because of these problems, some churches are not offering any further shelter.

As any pastor knows, faith alone doesn't pay the bills.

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