This past December 2, local nonprofit Gray Area Foundation for the Arts held an eight-hour team meeting to plot its coming year. After the meeting, some staffers had planned to attend an electronic-music event, at a warehouse in Oakland. While wrangling friends to carpool to the artist colony and underground venue, however, Gray Area education program manager Chelley Sherman got a text: "Don't come. There's a fire."
After that message, Sherman laid awake all night — worried not least for her friend Chelsea Faith Dolan, who was scheduled to perform at the show as Cherushii. She swapped texts and messages with Gray Area founder and director Josette Melchor.
"We felt desperate to do something, but really helpless," Melchor said of those hours after the fire.
The idea to start a fundraiser emerged around dawn, Melchor and Sherman recalled, and it launched online that morning with an initial goal of $10,000. Sherman was the original donor. "At first, I thought people were going to be saved and that there'd be medical expenses," Melchor said. "And then it was more around funeral expenses."
The fire took thirty-six lives and spurred a code-enforcement crackdown on unconventional residences and venues, which has attracted international media attention. Gray Area exceeded its modest goal by hundreds of thousands of dollars, and emerged as the go-to Ghost Ship relief fundraiser. Today, the total sum raised is approaching $900,000 — much more than a fund launched by the Oakland A's and managed by the American Red Cross.
As an arts organization with ties to local experimental music, Melchor reckoned that Gray Area was well positioned to meet the impacted community's needs. Her group could be more effective and flexible, the thinking went, than organizations unknown to the often cagey and secretive local underground. That's why she declined to outsource distribution of the funds to the Red Cross.
But nearly two months after the fire, Gray Area has yet to release any money.
Melchor said that Gray Area will announce criteria for allocations this week, and that they intend to begin distribution next month. She said the delay stems partly from fraudulent aid requests; Gray Area received more than 400 applications for relief, and it had to hire two employees specifically to manage the process.
And then there's what Melchor described as government agencies' reluctance to release vetted information about victims' families.
But that explanation doesn't satisfy Carmen Brito, a Ghost Ship resident who lost all of her belongings to the fire, and who has been advocating for former housemates. She said that approximately twenty people lived or worked at Ghost Ship, including temporary residents, and that Gray Area contacted many of them shortly after the fire. They were told to expect money in January, according to Brito. But she hasn't heard from the organization since before Christmas.
For a local organization that touts its music community ties, Brito said that Gray Area's communication has been sporadic and impersonal. She and many of her former housemates weren't aware of the online application-for-aid form until recently, for instance, and it also wasn't clear to them whether or not they needed to use it. Brito says most former Ghost Ship residents haven't even filled it out.
"Think about everything you touch in a day — clothes, bed, all that, gone. And a lot of people in that warehouse lost their means of making a living," Brito emphasized. "When you're asking traumatized people, people who are out of work and somewhere to live, to go fill out a form on the internet weeks later, it's weird."
By contrast, Brito commended homespun relief efforts, such as the Immediate Fire Relief Fund, which organizers say has distributed more than $60,000 to individuals who might not qualify for Gray Area or Red Cross money, including people who lost housemates.
Part of the initial motivation for starting the Immediate Fire Relief Fund, according to its organizers, was a fear that Gray Area would bungle distribution by relying on the Red Cross, a sprawling foundation with a checkered history. But the Red Cross quickly delivered Brito and her housemates approximately $4,000 each, making those worries seem misplaced.
"It should not take this long," Brito said of Gray Area. "Their priority seems to be families, which I get, but people facing homelessness have an immediate need that families don't."
Melchor said part of the hang-up for distributing funds is that East Bay government agencies didn't immediately connect Gray Area — whose fund the City of Oakland endorsed in press releases — with fire victims' next of kin. The "run-around," as Melchor described it, "has really hindered our entire distribution process. ... It was extremely frustrating, and I was shocked that the city didn't proactively reach out to us."
Melchor said that, at the direction of the Alameda County Coroner's Bureau, she wrote a letter to the District Attorney's Office. But it elicited no response. She said that she was then told by Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf's staff to contact the Red Cross, which didn't share information with Gray Area until January 2.
Alameda County spokespeople confirmed that they did not release next-of-kin information to Gray Area. They said that they considered the nonprofit legitimate, but that "it would be most appropriate" for the organization to contact the City of Oakland. Spokespeople from the City of Oakland, however, said that the city doesn't maintain next-of-kin information, and confirmed that staff helped connect Gray Area with the Red Cross.
Red Cross spokesperson Cynthia Shaw said they had 76 cases, including the families and "chosen families" of victims, residents displaced by the fire, and injured survivors. Each category was given a corresponding dollar amount from the organization's emergency funds and over $500,000 raised by the A's, a process that began on December 12. Most of the aid recipients, Shaw said, permitted the Red Cross to share their information with Gray Area.
During that time, Gray Area implemented an online-intake form that, as Melchor told it, yielded misinformation. The validity of some applications for relief has been difficult to confirm, she said — and the nonprofit has received outlandish, even conspiratorial phone calls and emails, which have stoked suspicions of fraud. (After Ghost Ship, right-wing fringe groups discussed undermining relief efforts on online message boards.)
Meanwhile, Brito is still waiting. "I just don't understand how they couldn't find a way. They've known who we are," she said. "What are they waiting for?"