The American Red Cross is a venerable organization that responds to disasters—ranging from fires to earthquakes—by providing shelter, food, health and mental health services to people so they can get back on their feet. A recent series of phone exchanges after a North County structure fire, however, raises questions about whether the Red Cross mission includes disaster relief for homeless individuals.
On Thursday, June 30, a four-alarm fire engulfed the abandoned Talone Meat Market in Escondido. Jennifer LaVine, a manager at nearby Tri-City Car pet, saw a man outside her store watching smoke fill the sky. He seemed in distress. The man, identified in an NBC-TV news reports as Larry Julien, was homeless and told LaVine he’s been inside the shuttered meat packing plant. He was concerned about friends he could not find who’d been sleeping there. He’d also lost all his belongings in the fire, including reading glasses and false teeth.
LaVine said she and co-worker Taylyn Wokmunskie exchanged four telephone calls with the local chapter of the Red Cross, seeking assistance for Julien. On the last call from the Red Cross, Wokmunskie said she was told no aid would be forthcoming. She said a man identified as “Dave” said: “If we help this homeless gentleman we have to help the thousands of other homeless people that come to us.” She said Dave added: “People might get the idea that if they set a house on fire they can get help.”
As of Tuesday, July 5, the cause of the fire was still under investigation.
LaVine said she was the one who offered to reach out to the Red Cross on Julien’s behalf, and made the first call on Thursday afternoon around 1 p.m. She says she fielded two callbacks from the Red Cross, and then had to leave her store before Wokmunskie took that last call.
A spokesperson for the Red Cross said the local chapter did assist with the Escondido fire. “However, I cannot confirm that response from any employee, and we have no record of that response being given,” Communications and Marketing Specialist Brianna Shannon wrote in an email.
“In the case of the homeless gentleman, our team did connect him with a caseworker at Interfaith Community Services in Escondido, a place to stay where he could also receive food and other services,” Shannon wrote. “We were also able to get him a referral for replacement glasses.”
Wokmunskie is adamant that the Red Cross representative told her on the phone that the organization couldn’t aid one homeless person without having to help thousands. She said Dave gave her the number for the Interfaith shelter, but that Julien had already told her he’d had a bad experience there and did not want to go back.
No one at Interfaith could confirm or deny that Julian came in for assistance or got a referral for new glasses, or if the Red Cross had interacted with the shelter in the aftermath of the Talone fire.
Advocate Michael McConnell, who runs the widely viewed Homelessness News San Diego page on Facebook, said situations like these are far too common.
“People experiencing homelessness are already in a crisis so some may think there is not much they can or should do when an additional tragedy hits,” he said. “Not responding only sends people further down the ladder and shows how we have grown to ignore those who are some of the most vulnerable among us.”
Other recent news about homelessness can’t be ignored. CNN picked up on this week’s story of San Diego police seeking a man believed to be responsible for three separate attacks on homeless men over the Fourth of July weekend, leaving two dead and another with life-threatening injuries. Police believe that serial killer struck againmorning in downtown.
In June, six homeless people were assaulted while they slept near downtown’s Horton Plaza. And earlier this spring, two brothers and a cheerleader from Santee were arrested and accused of involvement in the fatal beating of a homeless man who was a grandfather.
Response to murders and assaults aren’t within the outreach mission of the Red Cross. But post-fire aid is—including aid to those who are homeless.