UVALDE, Texas — This story originally appeared in the Texas Tribune.
Alfred Garza III wakes up at around 11 a.m. most days and downs a can of Monster Energy drink. After a shower, he heads to a popular eatery here, El Herradero de Jalisco, and orders a fajita chicken salad. Then, he makes his way to his father’s mechanic shop, where he hangs out until evening.
Then he goes home to watch Netflix or YouTube videos until he falls asleep around 1 a.m.
That’s been the grieving father’s routine since May 24, when a gunman killed 10-year-old Amerie Jo Garza, his only child, along with 18 other students and two teachers at Robb Elementary. Since that day, he’s been unable to muster the will to return to his old life and his job as a salesman at a local auto dealership.
Garza, 35, worries he’ll fall behind on his mortgage and car payments. He’s scrounging to pay for gas and food. And he’s confused about why he’s been unable to find meaningful financial assistance from nonprofits or the state, despite millions of dollars being made available to the people of Uvalde after the shooting.
“I'm not expecting life-changing money out of the situation,” Garza said from his living room, where the last school portrait of his daughter hangs on the wall. “It's just to get me through this rough patch until I go back to work.”
After the shooting, Gov. Greg Abbott announced he would allocate $5 million for Uvalde to open a social services center for grieving residents. That created confusion for many in the community, including the mayor and a state representative for the area who said they expected those dollars to flow directly to residents.
“It’s just ridiculous, it's almost like, where's this money going? Like, “Hey, I need help, I need money,’” Garza said.
Separately, at least $16 million has been raised from thousands of donations from across the country, flowing into GoFundMe accounts and local nonprofit organizations. But that money hasn’t yet been distributed to the people it’s intended for, and it could take months before that is sorted out — the local committee overseeing the largest donation fund wants to wait two more months before the money is distributed.
Garza’s not the only one struggling to get by. One in five Uvalde residents — who are mostly Mexican American — live below the federal poverty line. And the trauma of Texas’ most deadly school shooting touches the victims' families and friends, the survivors and the students, teachers and staff at Robb Elementary.
Several funds, each with their own rules
Mickey Gerdes, a local attorney who chairs the Uvalde 10-member committee in charge of the Uvalde Together We Rise fund, said donations have reached $16 million so far, collected through a GoFundMe account for the victims’ families, survivors of the shooting, and other local and regional organizations that have been fundraising.
Since it was formed on June 22, the committee has held two town hall meetings, the latest one last week, to allow families to share how they feel the money should be divided and who should qualify. The committee also needed time to research laws and make sure that recipients don’t get taxed for relief money and that they don’t lose other benefits such as Medicare and Medicaid after receiving financial help, Gerdes said.
He said he understands families need the money now, so the committee has agreed to start giving advances from $10,000 up to $25,000 after the application process opens on Sept. 8. Those advances will be deducted from the overall amount each recipient receives, he added
Gerdes said the committee chose an Oct. 20 cutoff date for donations “to maximize the number of funds.” and will start accepting applications for the money on Sept. 8 through the National Compassion Fund. The committee has partnered with the nonprofit, which has helped distribute $105 million since 2014 to victims and victims’ families of mass shootings.
In the meantime, families who lost loved ones or were injured in the shooting can apply for emergency funds to help pay for rent, mortgages, groceries or gas at hopeforuvalde.org. That fund is designed to help in the short term before the National Compassion Fund begins to distribute the larger funds.
Garza and others have turned to other places for financial help, which can be a time-consuming process. Garza said he filled out a 9-page application for help from the state attorney general’s Crime Victims’ Compensation Program, a 43-year-old program open to anyone in Texas who has been the victim of a crime. Two weeks later, Garza said he received $1,000, just enough to make one mortgage payment.
After the Uvalde shooting, the attorney general’s office promoted the program in a news release, saying the “team is working around the clock to ensure all qualifying applications are expeditiously reviewed, approved if allowed under Texas law, and reimbursed.”
The agency’s website says awards are capped at $50,000 and are meant to cover the costs of lost wages, medical expenses or funeral costs. According to the office, $36,213 had been paid “to or on behalf of victims” of the Uvalde shooting as of Monday.
The attorney general’s office “has not denied any claims related to the Uvalde shooting to date,” said Josh Reno, deputy attorney general of criminal justice. “It’s also worth noting that Texans have been extraordinarily generous in supporting the Uvalde community and victims of the horrific murders. The demand on the [Crime Victims’ Compensation] Program may therefore be less than it would be otherwise.”
“My heart breaks for the families and community in Uvalde. Words can hardly do justice — let alone money,” said Attorney General Ken Paxton in a statement in May. “I encourage all victims, their families, and providers to apply for this program to help ease the burden they’re carrying.”
Garza also said he received some cash and gas station and grocery store gift cards, which helped him pay for his June and July expenses. He said he wasn’t clear on who gave this money out, but the Community Council of South Central Texas and the state Department of Housing and Community Affairs have provided more than $400,000 in gas cards, hotel stays, mortgage assistance and utility assistance to at least 192 Uvalde households.
“Our heads are not in the right place to be even doing any of that [paperwork] stuff,” Garza said. “It's just very inconvenient to have to go through that to get help.”
Confusion about state money causes friction
In May, Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin and state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, whose district covers Uvalde, wrote a letter to Abbott that said the family of a shooting victim was at risk of having their power cut off while their daughter was in the hospital, while other families were offered compensation of two weeks’ pay, which they called “meager.”
The letter didn’t say who or what agency offered the two-week pay for some families.
In the letter, McLaughlin and Gutierrez asked Abbott to remove Uvalde District Attorney Christina Mitchell Busbee from overseeing the $5 million grant the state provided to Uvalde.
“These families cannot begin to heal unless they are given time to grieve free from financial worry,” Gutierrez said in the letter. “In short, the State of Texas ought to use every available resource in law to make these families whole.”
Abbott’s office responded by saying the governor would support whoever local officials put in charge of the social services center funded by the $5 million grant.
Busbee said the $5 million was never meant to be given directly to families. Instead, the grant required Uvalde to create the Uvalde Together Resiliency Center, where Uvalde residents can receive free services including counseling, help applying for unemployment benefits and services from the Mexican consulate by request.
Busbee said that she worries that McLaughlin and Gutierrez’s letter caused misinformation to spread.
“The [$5 million] grant actually prohibits me from taking money and giving it specifically to individuals,” she said. “That's not what it's for. It's to run the Resiliency Center on behalf of the Uvalde community.”
The mayor didn’t respond to an interview request regarding the $5 million grant.
Gutierrez said in a phone interview the intention of his letter was to bring attention to the families who are struggling to get by. He said if families can’t receive money from the $5 million grant, he wants the Texas Division of Emergency Management to assign case workers to help families fill out the paperwork for other programs and help them navigate any other bureaucracy.
“The biggest thing that families are needing more than anything is, essentially, resources to pay the bills,” he said. “There are people that they're simply traumatized and can't go to work.”
He said some families have received donations directly through their own GoFundMe accounts “but not everybody had the same successful GoFundMe page.” He said the governor should be doing more to help families because Abbott has “failed to understand the problem on the ground.”
Renae Eze, a spokesperson for Abbott, said in a statement that the governor “has taken immediate action to address all aspects of the heinous crime committed in Uvalde, working with state agencies to deploy all available resources and provide support to the victims’ families and the Uvalde community.”
Eze said that apart from the $5 million grant for the center, Abbott has provided $1.25 million to the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District for counseling, another $105.5 million for school safety upgrades and mental health services across Texas and issued a disaster declaration in Uvalde so that agencies such as the Texas Division of Emergency Management could set up the temporary facility to house the resiliency center.
“I’m trying to put it back together”
The new resiliency center is now in a temporary location just outside of the city limits behind the Uvalde County Fairplex, an event venue and indoor arena. The center is made up of a tent and 10 air-conditioned pods where counselors conduct sessions with residents.
Mary Beth Fisk, the interim executive director of the Uvalde Together Resiliency Center, said that since the center opened in June they have received 3,000 visits from local residents, mostly for counseling services.
Fisk said that while not everybody may be ready to see a counselor, she wants the community to know that there are services available. They have done different outreach campaigns, buying ads in the local paper, telling religious leaders to tell their congregations about the center and spreading the word on social media.
“The commitment is for the long term, we’re here to serve so families get what they deserve,” Fisk said.
The goal, Busbee said, is to keep the center open for at least four years using the state money. Uvalde County commissioners recently approved the purchase of a building where the center will be located for the long term, using $700,000 in state funds separate from the $5 million grant. The building, which used to house a bank, will be renovated using a separate grant or Uvalde County general funds, Busbee said.
Garza, who says he’s gone to one counseling session, said he hasn’t gone back to work because he doesn’t think he can focus on work. All he thinks about is Amerie Jo, and “what my life was like when I had my daughter, what my life is like now without my daughter and what my life is gonna be going forward.”
He misses his daughter's infectious laugh. Amerie Jo, he said, was a witty girl who, like him, loved to socialize with people. He said he thinks he needs at least another two months before he feels “ready to go back out into the world.”
But whether he can afford to be out of work for two months is something he also considers. He said he is hoping he could get an advance from the National Compassion Fund once that becomes available.
“That's kind of what I'm trying to process right now,” said Garza, who wore a cap with his daughter’s initials embroidered in red letters. “My life is kind of like in pieces right now and I’m trying to put it back together.”
Alexa Ura contributed to this story.