Why I Took out a $1 Million Loan Against My Home to Buy PPE

For the past four months, PPE has been my #1 priority. I am either handing out PPE directly to healthcare workers or fielding calls from them or organizations that need PPE.

My background is an artist and scholar. But when coronavirus first hit the U.S. — and New York City, my longtime home — the news articles about PPE shortages spurred me into action. I couldn’t sit on the sidelines and hear about hospital workers risking their lives by not having the masks, gowns and face shields they needed to stay safe when they go to work to save others.

I had flashbacks to Sept. 11, 2001, when the first responders who rushed to downtown Manhattan to help and then spent nine months digging and cleaning up Ground Zero didn’t have respirators to protect them from the Ground Zero toxins that would later kill scores of them 20 years later. The NYPD, FDNY, and PAPD didn’t have respirators or other necessary equipment to stay safe. Through my not-for-profit, my daughter London Allen and I started the main Ground Zero supply operation and ended up handing out PPE to these courageous workers for the 9 months of WTC recovery operations.

Woodhull Hospital workers in Brooklyn pick up free PPE from my organization, Cut Red Tape 4 Heroes. (Credit: Rhonda Roland Shearer)

So when the COVID outbreak hit in New York, I called vendor contacts I had from 2001. I took out nearly a million dollar loan against my home and started buying hundreds of thousands of surgical masks, KN95s, gloves, and hair bonnets. I called hospitals and organizations helping the homeless. I organized a band of selfless volunteers, rented a van and a truck and created the project Cut Red Tape 4 Heroes. We quickly started parking outside of hospitals and handing out PPE to doctors, nurses, security guards — everyone who works inside a hospital is at risk.

To date, we’ve handed out more than 725,000 items of PPE including more than 500,000 medical grade 3-ply face masks. We’ve gone to hospitals 25 times and given PPE to more than 20 organizations serving the homeless. Veterans and workers at VA hospitals in the Bronx, Manhattan and Brooklyn were given PPE to stay safe. We’ve helped homeless shelters and day camps for children living in public housing reopen or stay open. We’ve donated to adult care and nursing homes with shortages. Residents in eight public housing complexes in hot spot zip codes with 15%-41% positivity for COVID were handed out face masks, gloves and hand sanitizer by Cut Red Tape 4 Heroes volunteers.

COVID-19 has dominated the news cycle for months now. It may appear as if PPE supply chain problems are solved or significantly improved. Countless “feel good” stories about people like myself who are donating PPE help support this belief.

But, the shortages aren’t over. Four months in, I’m still getting urgent calls and emails from hospital workers stating that they don’t have masks, gowns, hand sanitizer, face shields or gloves they need to stay safe. Workers ask me to bring PPE to hand out to their hospital because their PPE is falling apart from being expired or reuse. Some hospitals welcome me, knowing they are helping workers at the very least feel supported by our volunteers who want to give them PPE for going to and from work or to share at home with family members. Such “universal masking” is a morale booster for staff who are now burdened by having to buy their own PPE.

But too many hospitals still turn me down when they learn the event will be in public and PPE will be handed directly to workers instead of being able to quietly and invisibly accept boxes that go into an opaque stockpile, as is normally the fate of PPE donations. There is little transparency.

One hospital administrator actually said it, “The PR people upstairs don’t like the optics of workers getting PPE in lines in front of the hospital” as the reason why we were uninvited! They simply would rather have their workers go without than admit they don’t have all the PPE their workers need.

As cities and states re-open, the need for PPE is continuing to grow and the shortages don’t stop. Astonishingly, despite the claim by NY State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker that there never was any PPE shortage, even the FDA admits that the PPE shortages continue and thought it important enough to publish a list citing which gown, glove or mask you will have trouble buying due to the continuing shortage. See “Medical Device Shortages During the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency.”

After one of our recent PPE giveaways at a New York City hospital, an e-mail landed in my inbox that stated: “I received a wonderful bag of PPE from your organization this morning and I just want to thank you!! I’ve been using the same face shield for weeks! And I re-use my face masks and I am truly grateful for your generosity. My whole department was touched by this gesture and we all appreciate you.”

This medical worker and all her brave coworkers are the reason why every week, my volunteers and I go out to hospitals and public housing complexes to give PPE to those in need. This is why I took on the tremendous risk of a loan against my home to buy the PPE in this emergency and am fundraising later, just as I did before for WTC Ground Zero workers .

Through GoFundMe and personal check donations, I have raised more than half of the approx. $850,000 I’ve spent on handing out PPE to those in need. But, I still need to raise approximately $350,000 left to pay down my debt following PPE purchases for the heroes who still need PPE. I thank every donor from my heart. Big and small, every donation gives me encouragement to push on. Donations can be made at www.cutredtape4heroes.org.

Director of Art Science Research Laboratory, Artist, Journalist & Philanthropist www.cutredtape4heroes.org www.asrlab.org