Kirby Sommers writes, takes photographs, is a disaster recovery specialist, and helps renters in New York City.
Kirby Sommers wrote her first published articles at the age of 17. The two back to back pieces (cover stories) were the first of their kind on the then little-known Afro-Cuban cult called Santerismo. Sommers obtained access to several secret rituals in a New York City apartment through a friend and wrote the first accounts of Santerismo in the United States.
Investigative journalism was a natural for her. As is her career advocating for human rights. For the poor. For the handicapped. For sexually assaulted women. For the homeless. For Hurricane Katrina survivors. For Hurricane Harvey survivors. For under-served renters.
“When I see a wrong, there is something that propels me forward to do something. That is what happened in 2006 when I discovered many of the non-profits were misappropriating funds meant to help Katrina survivors."
During her tenor as Founder of Katrina Home Drive (KHD) a vehicle created by Sommers to find housing and resources for survivors, Sommers noticed monies donated were being misappropriated.
“Not a lot of anything was trickling down to the people who had become known as displaced persons within the United States,” Sommers stated. “I began to make calls. I talked to every case manager I could get on the phone. I followed the money.”
Sommers focused on the largest recipient of Hurricane Katrina donations. At the time she began her investigation the American Red Cross (ARC) had received approximately $1.4 billion. When she spoke to a Red Cross spokesperson in Washington, D.C. it was confirmed: they were planning to sunset one of the programs survivors were never told about known as 'Means to Recovery'.
Sommers contacted former Mayor of San Francisco, Art Agnos, who had similar issues with the Red Cross during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
“Agnos was very kind. He told me you're not the Mayor of Hurricane Katrina, I was the Mayor of San Francisco, but you’re on the right track. Go public."
She took Mayor Agnos's advice and contacted the New York Times. The story was covered by Shaila Dewan and Stephanie Strom who wrote ‘Red Cross Faces Criticism Over Aid Program For Hurricane Victims’ that was published in August 10, 2007.
“I became disillusioned by the fact that the reporters did not go to Washington, D.C. to conduct an indepth investigation. The article allowed the Red Cross to basically cover up their wrong-doings. I didn’t want my name in it,” Sommers recollected.
“However, my name did show up somewhere in the middle of the piece. The bulk of the piece made it look as if they [The New York Times] were giving credit to a local organizer in New Orleans for exposing the wrong-doing of the American Red Cross. That wasn’t the case,” Sommers states.
‘Means to Recovery’ went on to help more Hurricane Katrina survivors who would not have received the help if Sommers hadn’t taken the story public on a national level.
By the time Hurricane Harvey came along in 2017 she once again became involved in helping survivors. This time with the help of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook many displaced survivors who had relocated to Texas began issuing warnings to people who wanted to donate to The American Red Cross.
"Red Cross gave a lucky few Harvey survivors $400 and were once again exposed. But with every disaster their marketing goes into full swing and they racked in a lot of money."
“People remember who helps them and who doesn’t. Regrettably donors don't know what a non-profit does and certainly not one that has tremendously deep pockets and ties to the government. A non-profit who has the ability to re-invent themselves with every disaster.” Sommers who is now a veteran in disaster recover states.
Kirby Sommers also uses her innumerable talents advocating for renters in New York City. During her early Katrina period she created landlord directories called Landlord Links helping rental consumers bypass broker fees. This was quickly followed by her personalized AptStar Program.
“Brokers don’t tell you the person who owns the apartment they are showing you is a slumlord or that there is something wrong with the building itself. They’re in it for that one-time commission. “I’m in it to help people. Moving is expensive and quality of life is important.”
Early in 2018 Sommers added the hashtag #metoo to her Twitter page.