CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) – When Victor Charles contracted COVID-19 last year, he was filled with dread because he lived alone with his 94-year-old mother, Claire.
She too became sick and within days Charles had to call an ambulance.
“I looked out the door, they took her in the wheelchair down to Rhode Island Hospital,” Charles said. “That was the last time I saw her alive.”
Like many funerals during the pandemic, the service for Claire Charles was modest, with only a handful of people allowed to attend.
But the bill was not.
Including the cost for the funeral home, headstone etching, flowers and burial, Charles estimates he spent about $14,000 — a steep price tag for someone out of work. But then he learned about the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Funeral Assistance Program, which provides up to $9,000 to people who lost a loved one to COVID-19, and it gave him some hope.
“I thought it was a great idea,” he said. “It will help us all.”
Charles applied with the understanding that FEMA would make a decision within 30 days. But he waited for several months without hearing either way, and his experience was shared by many across the state, according to a review by Target 12.
In Rhode Island, only about 464 of the 1,024 people who have applied since April 2020 have received aid, totaling a combined $3.2 million. A FEMA spokesperson underscored that only 15 Rhode Island applicants have technically been denied, meaning the rest of the applications are currently pending.
The pending status has left some unsure about when the money might come through, including Charles, who said for months he was told the financial support was “pending.” (Since Target 12 contacted FEMA about Charles, his application has been processed and he has received funding to help pay for his mother’s funeral.)
In Massachusetts, 5,008 people applied and 2,612 received funds, totaling $18.3 million, according to federal agency. Nationwide, FEMA estimates it has awarded $804 million to help pay for funeral expenses to 122,000 people.
A FEMA spokesperson declined to comment specifically on Charles’ case when contacted by Target 12, but said in a statement, “FEMA eligibility determinations are generally made in fewer than 30 days from the time all required documentation is received and verified. Applications are fully processed once all required documentation is submitted.”
Separate from the FEMA program, Rhode Island has its own funeral-assistance program for low-income residents. And while it doesn’t have a COVID-19 requirement, families affected by the pandemic have nonetheless been applying for help.
R.I. Department of Human Services spokesperson Alisha Pina said 919 people have applied to the state’s Burial Assistance Program since 2020, and about 15% of them “had documents stating the death was due to COVID-19.”
People can apply to both the FEMA and state programs, but “DHS has a policy that mandates all applicants report any funds that are used to cover burial expenses regardless of where it comes from.”
“I am told the FEMA application mandates families report any state assistance the applicant has received and if that assistance doesn’t cover all burial expenses, FEMA will consider helping the applicant with the balance,” Pina said in an email.