On Dec. 3, the day after a devastating fire tore through the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland, a small nonprofit in San Francisco took charge of collecting contributions.
“Every penny that is donated here should go to the fire victims’ funeral expenses, medical expenses and health-related expenses,” said Josette Melchor, founder of Gray Area Foundation for The Arts. Melchor spoke for the group intent on helping victims the Monday after the fire.
“That’s our priority first and foremost,” she said.
The nonprofit posted a plea online. The city of Oakland then directed donors to Gray Area. And the money poured in.
“We just felt like, what can we do?” said Romney Steele.
Joining nearly 12,000 people who gave to Gray Area, she donated two nights’ profits from her Oakland restaurant, The Cook and Her Farmer.
“In that two- to three-hour window, I think it was $600 that we raised,” Steele said. “So that felt really good.”
The running total of donations coming into the fund is $901,000. But some complain that the total handed out to victims stands at zero.
“Why is it taking so long?” asked Carmen Brito, a former resident of the Ghost Ship. “They know what we’re dealing with. They know we lost our home. They know we lost everything.”
Brito said she, as well as others who spoke with NBC Bay Area but declined to be identified, are in need of help. They say they received cash assistance hours after the fire from the Red Cross, which distributed money from a different fund led by the A’s, Warriors and Raiders.
But the Gray Area foundation has provided them no money.
“They kinda just didn’t seem to get it,” she said.
GRAY AREA FUND: STILL COLLECTING
SPORTS TEAMS' FUND: DONATIONS CLOSED
That surprised us. Because in December, Melchor, the Gray Area founder, said she was enlisting the Red Cross to help manage the fund.
“This is what they do. They’re good at it,” she said. “We’re not going to reinvent the wheel.”
But the Red Cross says Gray Area opted to manage the fund itself, on its own schedule.
“I would like to have seen an immediate handout,” Steele said.
NBC Bay Area has been asking Gray Area for information for weeks. On Thursday, the founder agreed to a follow-up interview. She confirmed that all the money is sitting idle in a bank account.
“We haven't spent a dime,” Melchor said.
Melchor said she has heard people’s concerns but assures them that Gray Area is beginning to approve applications.
“Eventually, they will be getting a check, in the next days to weeks,” she said. “So, to a certain point, I think they’ll begin to be thankful. And I think most people are thankful. They are just a few vocal people who are speaking out.”
As for why it’s taken close to two months, Melchor attributed the delays to getting records from the city and the coroner, which she says the Red Cross had immediate access to.
MORE INFO: GRAY AREA NEWS RELEASE
“There was just a huge hold up in us getting the information that we needed to serve the people that were affected,” she explained.
Our research found another hiccup: a call from the Attorney General’s Office.
Records we retrieved show the state sent Gray Area three different delinquency letters in 2016 for failing to file financial records. One notice, from August, warned of the state’s “intent to suspend or revoke” its registration as a charity.
RESEARCH A CHARITY: CA ATTORNEY GENERAL'S OFFICE
Melchor told us Gray Area was unaware of the letters until late December – in the middle of fundraising – when the Attorney General’s Office called.
“We cleared that up within 72 hours of the phone call with the Attorney General,” she said. “So, that is completely a non-issue.”
Not everyone agrees.
“That’s really a bad sign,” said Daniel Borochoff, president of CharityWatch, which scrutinizes and rates nonprofit organizations. Borochoff reviewed Gray Area’s filings as well as its online fundraiser.
He asked: “If the group can’t even get it together to get their finances reported, their basic public disclosure documents provided to the state of California and the IRS, then how can they be expected to get it together to get this huge quick influx of funds to the needed victims?”
Borochoff questioned Gray Area’s decision to administer the fund.
“There are certainly groups in the Bay Area that are better equipped and have the experience to handle a disaster such as this warehouse fire,” he said.
Melchor said her group’s recent budget exceeds the balance of $901,000 relief fund, so it is capable of handling that much money.
The victims and donors we talked to told us they just want Gray Area to distribute the money with the same urgency that the sympathetic public donated it.
“I don’t think anybody who gave money was like, ‘Yes I want this money to sit in a bank account of a foundation that’s dragging its feet.’” Brito said.
“I understand that it’s a difficult process. It’s a difficult process to weed out. But there’s got to be a way to make it happen faster,” Steele said.
Gray Area is still collecting donations. It has increased its fundraising goal several times and says it will continue to up its target.
Applications for aid are due March 7.
VICTIM ASSISTANCE: APPLY HERE