Nonprofit says fraudulent claims complicated distribution of Ghost Ship funds

- Two months after she outran fire consuming her bedroom in the Ghost Ship warehouse, Carmen Brito is happy to have a new home.

"A friend that I've known a long time had a room open up in the house he's been renting for the past several years,” said Brito.

“I was able to move in right away to a place that was rent controlled and an appropriate amount of rent."

Brito said she’s lucky in more ways than one in her survival. After escaping the fire that killed 36 people, including a fellow tenant, Brito said she found a permanent home, but many other displaced Ghost Ship tenants still are struggling to find housing.

"When you have to move somewhere new, you need first month, last month, and a deposit. If you were lucky to find a room for $700, you would need $2.100 just to move in,” said Brito.

Brito went back to school and work a few days ago, but she has daily reminders of the fire on December 2, 2016.

“It was really important for me to have my own bed,” said Brito. “But everything I’m surrounded in is new. New bed, new sheets, my old curtains were silk from when a taught in Bangkok. I can’t replace that. There’s no history in my home.”

To help fire victims, the local nonprofit arts foundation, Gray Area Foundation, created a YouCaring fund, which raised nearly $900,000. 

Eight weeks after the fire, Gray Area Foundation said it’s ready to relief some of the funds to injured victims, who went to the hospital or received medical treatment, the immediate families of those who died, and to the displaced tenants. Gray Area Foundation said it’s never managed a large-scale relief effort before the Ghost Ship fire and was overwhelmed with the size of the donation and the vetting process.

"It's pretty complex work and there's no real guide book for it,” said Josette Melchor, founder of Gray Area Foundation.

“We learned a fire across the street from our building had a relief effort that raised $200,000 for 65 victims. It took them one to six months to distribute everything.  Another good example is the Orlando shooting. It took 3-6 months to issue those funds."

Melchor said 136 people will receive the first check in the next two weeks. The process was complicated by numerous false claims in the 400 applications Gray Area received online. Melchor said the funds were open to more than just immediate family members and survivors, because of the wide impact the fire had on the community.

"It was open as well to biological members of the family not next of kin who incrued costs, as well as roommates, business partners, a broader swath of people that were impacted by this tragedy,” said Melchor.

Gray Area hired two people to help vet the claims and said her staff also is forced to handle numerous harassing phone calls and emails from fraudulent claimants.

Brito, however, felt the funds were unnecessarily tied up by the online application process.

"Anyone with internet access could have filled out that form,” said Brito.
"The whole world new I lived there two days after the fire. 8 weeks to verify I am who I say I am."

Brito said she’s grateful for the help, but feels if organizations raised money and publicity, because of the tragedy, then the ones who continue to suffer from it shouldn’t have to wait so long for relief.

Gray Area Foundation plans three phases for allocating relief funds. Brito said she was told she’d be receiving $7,000 this time and Melchor confirms the family of Samuel “Peaches” Maxwell will receive significantly more to help cover his hospital costs. Maxwell has been in the St. Francis burn center since the fire with severe smoke inhalation and other complications.

Gray Area Foundation said it doesn’t know yet how much money was raised at the Oakland United Fire Relief concert on December 14, because the Fox Theater hasn’t released all of the proceeds. Gray Area and the Fox Theater have a meeting next week to determine where the those funds will be allocated.

Brito said one happy moment came this week when a former Ghost Ship tenant returned to hold a vigil outside the remains of the warehouse and found the building’s resident cat “Juju” alive. The cat is now living with one of the survivors.


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