The People's Hurricane Relief Fund and Oversight Committee held a press conference this morning in front of their New Orleans office to protest the alleged withholding of funds from Hurricane Katrina victims by the American Red Cross.

PHRF charges that the humanitarian aid organization is concealing money available through the Means to Recovery program, which is part of its third-phase recovery efforts for people who suffered losses in Katrina, Rita and Wilma. The first phase was emergency response, sheltering and feeding, while the second phase was financial assistance.

According to PHRF, the Means to Recovery program

is supposed to allocate a maximum of $20,000 per family to cover occupational costs, housing, furnishing, personal living needs and health costs. This could cover anything from eyeglasses to a used vehicle to education costs.

Haven't heard of it? Neither have most Katrina-Rita victims who need the assistance. The same agency that spends millions of advertising dollars begging for money won't provide free public service announcements to alert struggling hurricane survivor families that relief is available.

Red Cross is trying its best to keep the program a secret and discourage the survivors who find out about it. ARC chapters in areas such as Jackson, Mississippi have lied to survivors, denied the existence of such a program and is attempting to penalize recipients who tell others about it. In other areas, people are routinely denied assistance based on the whims of case managers who arbitrarily decide if a person will get assistance or how much of their needs will be addressed.

To say the Red Cross is "hiding" the program isn't exactly true, however. A June 8 article in the Biloxi Sun Herald newspaper reported on the Means to Recovery program as well as Access to Care, which provides mental health care to storm victims:

"The thing we do best is normally right after a disaster occurs, providing food, water and basic supplies," said Pat Rimmer, senior public affairs associate for the Southeast Service Area Headquarters of the Red Cross. "But we decided we wanted to do something more long term for those affected by the 2005 hurricanes, mainly Katrina, Rita and Wilma."

The Sun Herald article noted that the aid isn't given to the individual or family but to the vendor from whom the needed items are purchased.

The Means to Recovery program was also the subject of an Oct. 26, 2006 Newhouse News Service report that described it as providing "help for victims unable to have needs met in a traditional forum." The program, it said, "sets case managers to work with clients to develop a long-term recovery plan for families."

PHRF links the Red Cross's failure to widely publicize the program to a more general "mean-spiritedness" in the way the congressionally-chartered charity has treated hurricane survivors, particularly people of color. It is calling on the Red Cross to:

Immediately and aggressively notify the public about the "Means to Recovery" program

Disburse the funds to Katrina-Rita Survivors within 90 days

Account for all funds received for "Means to Recovery"

Account for all funds disbursed on a dollars-to-demographics neighborhoods basis

Begin to treat Black Survivors with dignity, compassion and respect

The Red Cross's widely criticized post-Katrina performance was the target of an investigation led by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa). In May, President Bush signed into law legislation sponsored by Grassley and others that overhauls Red Cross governance and creates the new position of ombudsman, who will have access to all aspects of the organization's operations and provide annual reports to Congress.