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Aid leaders attempt to clarify picture on donations going to North Bay fire victims

Tens of millions of dollars have been donated in recent weeks to assist residents affected by last month’s deadly North Bay wildfires, but the outpouring has left some survivors of the disaster seeking greater clarity about how the relief money will be distributed.

Jil Child reached out for assistance after the Tubbs fire destroyed her Fountaingrove home in the Vintage Woods development behind Sweet T’s restaurant. She said she got $1,000 from the North Bay Fire Relief fund, spearheaded by the Redwood Credit Union, state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, and The Press Democrat. While it was double the amount she received from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Child, 54, said it far from covered the cost of replacing clothing, furniture and other necessities she lost in the fire, forcing her to further deplete her savings. Many friends have had to do the same after losing their homes.

“We’ve seen very little money that’s out there,” Child said. “$1,500 doesn’t even replace a computer.”

She attempted to seek additional donations after she heard about the $17 million raised through the Band Together Bay Area concert earlier this month at AT&T Park. She ultimately was referred back to the North Bay Fire Relief fund, which received some of the concert proceeds but doesn’t allow victims to apply for assistance more than once.

It’s frustrating not knowing where the larger pool donations for various different agencies and groups are going or how to access them, Child said.

“It just makes us sick when we hear another figure they’ve raised when we’ve seen very little,” she said.

Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin said she’s heard similar frustrations from residents on social media. While there’s no gatekeeper overseeing all the donations, she said nonprofits and organizations are starting to come together to get a clearer picture of how much money is rolling in and how it’s been handed out.

“Accountability and transparency will be important,” said Gorin, who along with Supervisor Lynda Hopkins was assigned to work with the city of Santa Rosa to track the funds. “We want to make sure the folks who are entitled to the assistance and need the assistance receive the assistance.”

The Community Foundation Sonoma County will hold a meeting Tuesday with major fundraisers to talk about the donations received and strategies on how and when the money is distributed, said Elizabeth Brown, the organization’s president and CEO. They’ll also discuss future community needs.

Her foundation so far has raised $8 million for fire victims, but it’s planning to use the money to address more long-term needs rather than provide immediate cash relief. Brown said the money will be distributed to nonprofits who already are stretched thin serving fire victims.

“We’re giving ourselves some time to listen and to learn and to leverage our fund so that we can maximize each charitable dollar,” she said.

The North Bay Fire Relief fund is considered the largest fund dedicated to the immediate assistance of fire victims. Nearly $14 million, or 60 percent of the $23 million raised, already has been committed to help thousands of fire victims in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties.

“It sounds like a lot of money until you break it up in four counties,” said Brett Martinez, Redwood Credit Union CEO and president.

He said the need is great. They’re still getting applications from people who lost homes, jobs and wages during the fires. In Sonoma County alone, the fires destroyed 5,100 homes and killed 23 people.

As applications begin to taper down, Martinez said they’ll look at whether they can go back and offer fire victims additional money.

So far, $7 million has gone in the form $1,000 checks to victims who lost their homes, regardless if they owned or rented. More than $1 million went to hundreds of children to replace their school supplies, books and clothing lost in the fires.

The North Bay Fire Relief fund also partnered with nonprofits, such as California Human Development, to provide more than $3 million to people who lost jobs or wages during the fires. Some of that money also went to UndocuFund, an effort launched by Graton Day Labor Center, North Bay Organizing Project and North Bay Jobs with Justice to provide financial assistance to undocumented families impacted by the fires.

“Our fund is helping a lot of people,” Martinez said. “Our goal is to get those dollars out (quickly).”

He said residents who haven’t already applied for relief have until Thursday to do so through the North Coast Opportunities and United Way of the Wine Country, which are handling the applications for the fund. Sonoma Valley residents have until Dec. 15 to apply through La Luz Center, while Napa residents have until Dec. 8 to apply through the Center for Volunteer and Nonprofit Leadership.

The North Bay Fire Relief fund received $750,000 from the San Francisco-based Tipping Point Community’s emergency relief fund, the initial beneficiary of the Band Together concert. The grant-making organization raised a total of $23 million, including the concert proceeds, for low-income and vulnerable residents impacted by the fires. It won’t be handing out the money directly to victims, but will distribute it to groups already assisting survivors of the disaster. So far, it’s allocated a total of $2 million to eight organizations, including the Community Foundation Sonoma County, Jewish Family and Children’s Services and Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa.

“Tipping Point has been working for over a decade to find and fund the most effective groups fighting poverty in the Bay Area. We are drawing upon this experience to partner with North Bay organizations serving low-income communities hit hardest by the fires,” said Daniel Lurie, the nonprofit’s founder and CEO.

Jennielynn Holmes, Catholic Charities’ housing and shelter senior director, said the agency has seen about 1,000 people looking for housing and other assistance since the fire. Some lost rental homes in the fires, while others were pushed out of secondary units by landlords who lost their homes in the blazes. Many had never sought assistance before from Catholic Charities, which has relied on donations like the one from Tipping Point to assist these families, she said.

“As a nonprofit we had already penciled out and squeezed every penny,” Holmes said. “Without these additional dollars we would not be able to meet the new needs facing our community.”

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 707-521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com.