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Milwaukee Red Cross reverses visit policy after criticism

The American Red Cross of Wisconsin said Wednesday it was reversing 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.

Volunteers will continue going to help fire victims wherever they are in the city, the organization said in a statement Wednesday in which it apologized for the policy it briefly implemented in late December. The Red Cross had quickly faced backlash over the 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's policy 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 its limited resources more efficiently, having helpers meet victims at a warm and safe location. On Wednesday, she said resource constraints remain but group will redouble its efforts to recruit more volunteers.

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.

Elected officials had criticized the new policy.

"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.

Under the initial rollout of the policy, more affluent and largely white areas downtown and along the city's lake shore were not impacted.

"This was a situation where initially they made a decision and they didn't, I think, understand the ramifications of the decision and how it would be perceived," Mayor Tom Barrett said Wednesday after the Red Cross' announcement.

Barrett said the agency was "operating in goodwill" and with the change "recognized that this was not what they intended."

He said they're looking at the issue as an opportunity to recruit more volunteers.

The Milwaukee Red Cross chapter had said the 10 ZIP codes it chose for initial implementation of the policy 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.

"I don't want a differentiation based on where someone lives and to me I thought that was the perception and in a sense a reality," Barrett said.

Some of the ZIP codes 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. But Flowers has insisted that was not the motivating factor.

Rainey said before the organization's reversal that city residents should be "extended the basic courtesy" of having a volunteer meet them in person.

"Considering the Red Cross is an organization that goes into war-torn countries," he said. "To actually think that they would discontinue the service of comforting families who may have experienced the greatest loss of their life, it was very disturbing."

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