Homeless people are eligible for incentive checks. Here’s how to receive your payment. – Community News
Stimulus Check

Homeless people are eligible for incentive checks. Here’s how to receive your payment.

Any US citizen who made less than $75,000 — or $150,000 total for married couples – qualified for the three rounds of pandemic stimulus in 2019 or 2020: the $1,200 check last spring, the $600 check in December, and the $1,400 checks now on the way.

That’s a significant amount, enough to change lives for people who are saving for an apartment deposit, finally getting medical care, paying for the transition to a better job, or dealing with unexpected life events. In the last stimulus account, there is even more money for everyone who qualifies for unemployment and everyone with dependent children.

But for the people who need the checks most, they can be hard to get. That’s because the primary mechanism by which the government sends the checks to people is gone their tax returns – that is, incentive checks are automatically sent to households that have filed tax returns. But many of America’s poorest households don’t pay taxes because their incomes are low enough that it isn’t necessary. ProPublica in the fall estimated that 9 million Americans eligible for a stimulus check did not receive one, mainly because their income was so low that they failed to file taxes.

And for people who are homeless, the problem is particularly acute. In addition to not filing tax returns, most likely don’t have a permanent address to mail the checks to, a bank account to deposit them into, and identification documents needed to prove eligibility.

But people who are homeless to be qualify for stimulus checks. And to give them those checks would be a much-needed boost.

How to get the stimulus check if you don’t file a tax return or have a permanent address?

The inaccessibility of checks to those who need them most is a depressing situation, but advice is circulating online about what to do about it. A post from activist Hamdia Ahmed has been shared more than 100,000 times:

As Ahmed says, filing a tax return is probably the best way to get the checks right now if you missed something. (The EIP is just the official word for the stimulus checks — they’re called “economic impact payments.”)

Until November 2020, the IRS had a “non-filers tool” available that allowed people to claim incentive checks without filing taxes, but that online tool is now disabled. Now the only way left to get the checks is to claim them as a rebate on your taxes. The tax deadline is usually April 15, but the IRS has announced plans to postpone it due to the pandemic.

There are free online tools to file taxes for anyone with less than $72,000 in income, and the IRS also offers free, personal assistance programs for those in need: Voluntary Income Tax Assistance and Tax Advice for the Elderly, running through April 15, 2021 (and may take longer because the April 15 tax deadline has been extended by one month). There are also tax return offices that will help in exchange for a cut of the discount – although you should look for one that charges a reasonable reduction as some will charge hundreds of dollars more than others. If you do not have a bank account into which the check can be deposited directly, it can be sent to you as a debit card.

There are also many community organizations that are working successfully on obtaining people’s checks. ProPublica covered Angel Resource Connection, which set up outside tables in the Seattle area to help homeless people fill out the IRS’s “non-filers tool.” Lines were long, as each person needed about 20 minutes of one-on-one attention from a volunteer to navigate the glitchy shape.

While local organizations help homeless people get their incentive money, United Way has a helpful online guide and a national hotline: (844)-322-3639. And according to MarketWatch, if you don’t have a permanent address, you can have your incentive money sent to your local post office, homeless shelter, or religious place of worship.

So there is a way to get the check even if you are homeless. But filling in government documents without a fixed address, access to a computer or official proof of identity is still a barrier for many people.

That frustrating situation has created a void that organizations have stepped into — sometimes with questionable results.

In California, a company called Docuprep offered to give homeless people their $1,200 incentive checks, giving a customer Keeping $800 and $400 for yourself is a big savings. But as news reports have shown, that experience has not gone smoothly. More than 60 percent of homeless applications were rejected by the IRS because names and information did not match what the government had on its file. Simple spelling mistakes, name changes, and other mismatches can slow down the process of approving a return and getting a check.

But even for the remaining 40 percent of applications, checks were not delivered in November, when they were promised, or in December, or in January. Instead, the checks were repeatedly postponed as the IRS tried to verify that the program was not fraudulent. Frustration has mounted because Docuprep didn’t deliver the checks. The phone number on the company’s website is now broken and it’s not clear how many people — if applicable – have their checks.

America’s Complicated Benefit System

But this problem of an overly complex system that makes it difficult for people to access benefits is not limited to the stimulus controls. For many government benefits, many who qualify don’t get it – often because they have no idea how to apply.

An August 2020 report from the Department of Agriculture found that 16 percent of those eligible for food stamps do not receive them. The number varies wildly from state to state, suggesting that state-specific differences in eligibility messages, application processes, and benefit delivery likely contribute to the differences. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program is notoriously difficult for eligible families to access, with only about 23 percent of them receiving assistance in 2019.

Homelessness, disabilities and extreme poverty all make it more difficult to access benefits, so those most in need are often the most likely to fall through the cracks.

As my colleague Dylan Matthews has repeatedly argued, the federal government needs to make its aid programs simpler and more accessible. Indeed, the recent stimulus plan has made some progress in this area: Biden’s child support turned the existing child tax credit into a near-universal benefit sent to eligible recipients each month, making the program both more generous and accessible. But that’s a one-year fix, and there’s a lot more work to be done on this front.

Needless to say, this is a terrible way to make incentive payments – and any other form of government aid. If the federal government wants to help people, it’s not enough to get programs that basically help them; the government has actually to build the infrastructure to get that aid into their hands.

For example, the IRS was made responsible for sending the stimulus checks and publishing eligibility, but has no budget for audience outreach or marketing. It could have easily gotten one along with the responsibility of mailing the checks.

There are also solutions on a larger scale. Some policy thinkers prefer to give every American a federal bank account, which would at the same time solve the problem of underbanking – where poor people, who are not profitable for the banking system to look up to as customers struggle with access to basic financial services – and the problem of sending incentive checks and benefits. In principle, the government could respond to recessions, pandemics and disasters of all kinds by simply depositing some money into our Fed accounts.

In recent years there has been a dramatic turn towards cash as a way to solve hardships. Research has shown that poor people use cash to work more and improve their lives, and that cash is often the best way to help them. The stimulus checks were overwhelmingly popular, and the Democratic Party won a majority in the Senate, thanks in large part to a pledge to send more checks, which they have now done.

But a policy of sending checks must be linked to a plan to actually get those checks to people in poverty and homelessness.