When the storm surge sent floodwaters pouring into the West Village last month, it wreaked havoc on ground-floor homes and offices throughout the neighborhood. Among them was the drop-in facilities of the Ali Forney Center, a non-profit that provides shelter and social services to New York’s homeless LGBT youth.
It wasn’t until nearly a week later that Carl Siciliano, the organization’s founder, was able to get to the office to survey the damage. “It is destroyed,” Siciliano wrote in a statement afterwards. “Water went at least four feet up the walls, and everything in there, including phones, computers, refrigerators, supplies, and the building floors has been irreparably damaged.”
Siciliano put out a call for help, writing to contacts in the media and the blogosphere. Almost immediately, the effort bore fruit. Joe.My.God picked the story up. So did Queerty, the Washington Blade, the L.A. Times, and the New Yorker. All the media helped. Soon, Siciliano’s distress call had netted $400,000 in donations.
But both Siciliano’s initial plea and all of the subsequent press failed to mention what the actual cost of the damage was. And while New York Times and AP reporters explicitly noted that most of the money being raised will actually go to expenses Siciliano knew about before Sandy, most of the press didn’t make that distinction.
The Ali Forney Center, which has ten sites throughout the city, had already been planning on moving its drop-in center out of the space it rents from Flemister House, another homeless services organization, before the flooding. Siciliano had found a new location, with more space and more flexible operating hours, in Harlem, and planned to move in in January, when the Fleminster House lease was up.
But a week before the storm hit, Siciliano learned that because the drop-in center provides some medical services, state licensing standards would require substantial renovations to the Harlem space.
“Our old space pre-dated the new regulations, so we were grandfathered in,” Siciliano says. “But in the new space we’re going to have to do all kinds of work, moving plumbing and everything.”
All told, Siciliano calculates, the renovations will cost more than $200,000.
“So for the week before the hurricane, I was kind of freaking out,” Siciliano says. “The lease was up in January. It’s not like we just had that kind of money lying around. Where were we going to come up with it?”
The answer came after Sandy hit, and the money started flowing in.
This fundraising raises a complicated question: In a post-hurricane environment where organizations and individuals are competing for a finite pool of donations to pay for their own storm damage, is it appropriate to raise “Hurricane Sandy Relief” money that’s ultimately going to expenses that existed before the storm?
Siciliano doesn’t see it that way. “It’s a black-and-white distinction that isn’t real,” he said. “I was asked repeatedly by the media what it would cost to get our operation back up and running, and the amount of $400,000 was a combination of what it would it would cost to replace what had been destroyed and raising the unmet costs of moving into the new space to provide services. Being displaced to our current space months before we were ready to leave made it a crisis that we raise those funds. That crisis was caused by the hurricane.”
Siciliano maintains that he’s been nothing but straightforward about where donors’ money is going. “I’ve been explaining it all along,” he told the Voice. “How well the media reports it is a different question.”
And Siciliano argues that the renovation costs in Harlem actually are hurricane-related, in a sense, because Sandy narrowed his options. Before the storm, he might have renegotiated his lease to stay longer in the Flemister House while he raised the money for the work in Harlem.
“Now, that’s not an option,” he says. “Thanks to Sandy, we just have to get these renovations done as quickly as possible. The silver lining is that people have been so generous.”