MILWAUKEE — The American Red Cross of Wisconsin is abandoning a new policy in Milwaukee that would have forced predominantly black and Latino residents from low-income areas to travel to receive the organization’s volunteer assistance after a house fire.
The organization released a statement Wednesday saying it will continue sending volunteers out to help fire victims in the affected neighborhoods. The Red Cross had quickly faced backlash over the policy change, which critics said was discriminatory and favored wealthy residents.
“In an effort to continue to serve people affected by home fires, we recently implemented new procedures in Milwaukee that we now understand were insensitive to the communities we serve,” Regional Chief Executive Officer Patty Flowers said in the statement. “We apologize for this mistake and will immediately return to the way we have responded to home fires in the past, consistent with American Red Cross practices and values nationwide.”
The agency rolled out a new policy in late December that called for people living in 10 ZIP codes to go to a nearby police station or a Red Cross office for help, rather than volunteers going out to homes in those areas. The organization’s Milwaukee chapter had said it planned to expand the policy citywide, but it didn’t provide a timeframe.
Flowers had said the group was short on volunteers and wanted to use staff more effectively. On Wednesday, she said resource constraints remain but group will redouble its efforts to recruit more volunteers.
Elected officials had criticized the policy’s rollout.
“The optics of it is classic red-lining. It’s not simply a race issue. I would say it’s a class issue,” said Alderman Khalif J. Rainey, who represents one of the ZIP codes affected by the since-thwarted policy.
The agency had said it wanted to use its limited volunteers more efficiently and have them meet victims at a warm and safe location. The Milwaukee chapter had characterized the new policy as a temporary fix.
The Red Cross provides fire victims a place to sleep, food and water, health services including mental health, and help filling out prescriptions among other things.
Under the initial rollout of the policy, more affluent and largely white areas downtown and along the city’s lake shore were not impacted.
“When people looked at the map as to the areas that were not being served, I think that raised questions,” Mayor Tom Barrett said Tuesday after meeting with Flowers.
The Milwaukee chapter had said the initial 10 ZIP codes it chose were simply the busiest. They spanned the majority black north side of the city and southern neighborhoods largely populated by Latinos. In one ZIP code on the north side, 53206, nearly half of the residents live below the poverty level.
Some of the ZIP codes first selected also have among the highest crime rates in the city, leading some aldermen to speculate that the Red Cross may also be concerned about volunteer safety.
Barrett said he and Flowers spoke about race, although “not necessarily racism,” and “the need to make sure that low-income people who are the victims of fires, that they also receive the same treatment that others receive.” He said they’re looking at the issue as an opportunity to recruit more volunteers.
Alderman Robert Donovan, who represents a majority Latino district in the southern part of the city, said there’s no substitute for having “someone there on site when you need them the most.”
“But I can certainly understand the position they’re in if indeed it’s come down to just fewer and fewer volunteers,” he said Tuesday.