Sorting Out Substance from Scams in Relief Funds

Residents are evacuated from their flooded apartment complex Tuesday, April 19, 2016, in Houston. Storms have dumped more than a foot of rain in the Houston area, flooding dozens of neighborhoods. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

New Orleans  I’m looking forward to driving to Houston this week to finish a trip that was unbelievably storm delayed. Even though Beaumont, Texas not far across the Louisiana border is still without potable water, and neighborhoods in Houston are still flooded, Interstate 10 runs through it all on an open road from New Orleans to the Pacific Ocean, and I’ll be pedal to the metal to get there.

I’m hoping to sort out who is really on the ground doing the job. Having been too intimately involved in post-Katrina work in New Orleans, that is the key to recovery, not necessarily the heroes and goats in the first wake of the storm and the tally of dollars for relief. There were plenty of both though. A local mattress company and an Academy Sports location have gotten rave reviews for their open arms and generosity, just as Joel Osteen and his megachurch and gospel of prosperity has been pilloried for the lack of both. Houston is a big time corporate headquarters and some big timers have stepped up including the Michael Dell of Dell Computers with a pledge of $36 million and the John and Laura Anderson Foundation of Enron energy trading fame with $5 million. JJ Watt, the Houston Texas NFL star, supported by his mom back home in small town Wisconsin has soared from a goal of $200,000 to crest $18 million and rising. An equally enjoyable story is the complete embrace of far right conservatives like Texas governor Greg Abbot and cantankerous Senator Ted Cruz of as much money as they can score from their much hated and abused federal government. Abbot has set the price tag at $180 billion wanting Texas to have the record in this category as well.

Watt’s mom is worried about how to spend the money as well she and the donors should be. At least President Trump didn’t endorse specific charities in the way that George W Bush propped Habitat for Humanity and the Red Cross. Habitat raised over $300 million after Katrina and a dozen years later is still accounting for how it spent the money since its sweat equity model was out-strapped by the need for housing PDQ, rather than in the by and by. Houston is likely to have a similar problem with public housing displacements at over 30,000 and schools and jobs still inaccessible for many people. People will need housing, but where do you build on the same flood plains, and who is making the plans and where are people in the process? These are critical questions with 50,000 in hotel rooms now and only 1500 still in the George Brown Convention Center. These are also questions that were poorly answered after Katrina over and over as we continually had to fight against displacement and for quicker movement of funds.

People need to be at the table. In Houston under Mayor Bill White after Katrina, he wisely convened a daily morning meeting to make sure up to 100,000 Katrina survivors were welcomed and housed. At that meeting were chief executives of Fortune 500 companies and the business elite, as well as representatives from ACORN. White strong armed the Houston real estate interests to open up all of their available rental units to Katrina survivors. Current Mayor Sylvester Turner needs to do the same thing.

While doing the right thing, avoid the scamsters. Social media and crowdfunding are hot with appeals, but beware. Websites are springing up willy-nilly as always. Money is going to be needed for a long time from Houston to Beaumont. There’s no harm in making sure that your few dollars are going where the impact will be the greatest, but it may take some time to sort that out. That’s one of the things I’ll be doing this week, so stay ready and willing, but be careful.


If Donations Are Free Speech, so is Begging

New Orleans   Free speech is a funny thing, though many are no longer laughing. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

The Supreme Court in one decision after another from Citizens’ United on out has said that the act of giving money is free speech for the rich. There are no limits other than the size of their bank balances. Until phenomena like the Sanders’ campaign upended the role of smaller donations from regular people, the first primary for both parties has been the “money” race to determine who can amass the largest war chest. Remember the ancient history that favored former Governor Jeb Bush in the Republican lists for that reason alone.

At the same time people begging for donations in public other than politicians, arts groups, ball teams, and scores of others were seen as panhandlers and beggars. Cities, counties, and states passed ordinances and all manner of legislation defining the later as public nuisances, even though the former, especially the intersection between politicians and the rich is widely recognized as a threat to democracy, not simply public safety. Most of public officials weren’t offended by the sight of politicians with their hats and hands out to the rich, perhaps because there with the grace of god go they, but they were horrified by the homeless and determined to protect the public from the destitute or the down on their luck.

The tide has been forced to turn the other way. Federal judges have ruled panhandling restrictions unconstitutional in cities in Colorado, Florida, Illinois, and Massachusetts recently. Challenges are outstanding in Washington, DC, Houston, Oklahoma City, and Pensacola, Florida.

Not only does this give more justice to the poor, but it is also a boon to nonprofit fundraising. Welcome to something called “tagging.” Many credit the notion to firefighters who annually get out on street corners with their boots for a donation to this or that and would give donors a “tag,” a small piece of paper thanking them. ACORN’s canvass program in the 1980s taught everyone, including the organizing staff how to run a tag program. We had a hugely successfully program in New Orleans for example for both ACORN and the United Labor Unions. Cecile Richards, now the much esteemed director of the national Planned Parenthood Association, used to talk regularly about how great a tagger she was back in the day, and indeed she was! We were in and out of court with Orleans and other parishes on our free speech rights in this regard. Decades later they bent to the our wheel, though some try to claim panhandlers have to be seated and not mobile. They allow various groups to do whatever. I watched someone panhandling yesterday while I was at a stoplight, jump up from their milk crate and block traffic exiting the freeway with wild gesticulations because an emergency vehicle was trying to get through.

I applaud the overturned rulings in Colorado particularly. We had a tagger arrested decades ago in Denver, which we litigated aggressively, though unsuccessfully in the end, when the tagger was convicted of so-called “public begging.” Justice delayed is indeed justice denied, but once achieved no matter the years, is still sweet.

When I recommend tagging as a fundraising mechanism both in the US and around the world organizers sometimes look at me with shock and horror in their eyes. I’m mystified. In New Orleans in the early 80s, New Orleans sometimes took in more than $1000 on a Saturday! What could be wrong or demeaning about asking the public for support for our causes?

And when it comes to the poor begging, if politicians don’t like the sight of them, there’s an easy solution: provide them more money, housing, and benefits.

Until then, people are going to do what has to be done. That doesn’t just apply to the rich.