How do you mail checks?

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Timothy Haberer is a house painter who picked up odd jobs before the crisis hit and hasn’t worked since.

Homeless and living on the streets of Sarasota, Florida, he could use a $1,200 stimulus check as much as anyone in the country. But Haberer, an Army veteran, has come up empty so far.

“He applied for me on his phone,” Haberer said, pointing at the groggy man trying to sleep in the mulch beside him. “But I haven’t received anything.”

Across the United States, millions of people like Haberer – men and women, homeless or living in poverty – are entitled to $1,200 stimulus checks but haven’t found a way to access the money or are so disconnected from the mainstream that they don’t believe the funds are theirs for the taking.

“These are folks who don’t make enough money to file a tax return,” said Chantel Boyens, a principal policy associate at the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank that studies cities and neighborhoods. “The government can’t find them. They make less than $12,200 a year. They may be part-time workers. Most have gotten laid off, and they are in high need.”

The Urban Institute estimates that there are at least 10 million in this hardest to reach category. They don’t receive federal benefits, so the government doesn’t have any contact information for them, and it’s under no obligation to search through state databases to find them. So the IRS does the bare minimum: It directs anyone who wants a stimulus check sign up by using its Get My Payment website.

But there’s a big problem with that approach.

Homeless people and others living in poverty don’t own laptops or PCs. Most don’t have smartphones. With public libraries closed because of the pandemic, it has been difficult to access the internet. As a result, obtaining stimulus checks has been virtually impossible without assistance from employees at nonprofit organizations or government agencies – people like Ryan Spangler, a senior mental health worker with the Heartland Alliance Health Outreach Team in Chicago.

Wearing a face shield, mask and gloves and carrying a laptop, Spangler’s goal is to sign up as many people as possible for stimulus checks as possible as he makes his way around Chicago’s homeless encampments and tent cities.

Over the past month, Spangler says he’s gotten pretty efficient. The signup takes about 10 minutes, and the reaction from clients is pretty diverse.

Will I qualify for a stimulus check?

“Some people are skeptical,” Spangler said. “They feel they won’t qualify. They’re not very optimistic. Others are super excited. They’re so relieved someone has come all the way out here to help them.

“A small minority don’t want to talk to anyone,” he continued. “They’re experiencing mental illness and don’t want to engage at all. But they represent less than 5% of the total.

“Some folks say, ‘OK, I’ll go along with it, but I’ll never see the money,’” Spangler said. “But once they get it, they’re kind of astounded. $1,200 means a lot to folks who have no income.”

Spangler said it has gotten to the point where people are now contacting him by phone to tell him that they need help. But he acknowledged he will never come close to satisfying demand without help from other nonprofit staff and volunteers.

“There are not a lot of other people doing this and I can only get out once a week,” Spangler said. “I haven’t heard or seen a concerted effort from other organizations. Maybe because of COVID, everyone is stretched real thin. Maybe everyone is so overwhelmed, they haven’t had time to think about it. But if someone just sat outside a homeless shelter with a laptop, I’ll bet that would lead to a huge yield, and I’m sure that applies all over the country.”

Heartland Alliance, which provides a range of services to people who are homeless or living in poverty, has signed up 300 people in the Chicago area for stimulus checks since April, according to Joseph Dutra, Heartland’s media manager. Ninety have received their money so far. In Illinois as a whole, Heartland and its partners in the Get My Payment Illinois coalition have engaged with 47,833 people through email outreach and helped 9,122 people get their checks during the first three weeks of May.

“There’s so much need during this time,” said Jody Chong Blaylock, Heartland’s associate director of research and policy. “People are struggling across the board. There’s need in terms of financial support and job loss is huge.”

Heartland is just one of a number of nonprofits that are working with the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) on a major push to sign up people for stimulus checks all across the United States.

Not ‘a ton of guidance from the IRS or Treasury’

“We haven’t seen a ton of guidance from the IRS or Treasury Department about ways organizations can be working with the lowest income people and people experiencing homelessness to make sure they get these resources,” said Sarah Saadian, vice president for public policy for NLIHC. “These are the very people who need the resources the most and it’s disappointing that the administration hasn’t been centering its program on their needs.”

The stimulus checks were designed with the middle class in mind – not the lower class or people of color, Saadian said. 

“Typically, the lowest income people are the most likely to be impacted by disaster,” Saadian said. “They have the least resources to carry them through economic hardship. Even before the pandemic, there were 11 million households that were one financial crisis away from homelessness. Stimulus checks could help them stay at home and meet their basic needs.”

NLIHC is focusing primarily on people living in poverty in seven major metro areas – Birmingham, Alabama; Chicago, Cleveland, Las Vegas, Miami, New Orleans and Portland, Oregon.  But coronavirus has hampered efforts especially in pandemic hotspots like New Orleans, preventing nonprofit employees from holding community meetings or getting out and knocking on doors.

“We’re not going out in person because of COVID,” said M.A. Sheehan, director of the Lower 9th Ward Homeownership Association in New Orleans. “It’s been one of the biggest challenges.”

Sheehan’s organization, which focuses on making sure impoverished residents of the 9th Ward don’t lose their homes and fall into homelessness, has been placing fliers in food distribution bags and is planning direct mailings to inform residents about how to apply for stimulus checks.

Like the homeless population in much of the U.S., Sheehan said her target population is impeded by a lack of internet access.

Statistics provided by The Data Center, a southeastern Louisiana research organization, shows that 20% of the population in New Orleans has no access to the internet and another 17% only has access through their phones. In turn, only 58% of African Americans in New Orleans have access to a desktop or laptop computer, according to a 2019 study by the Pew Research Center.

“If people don’t have access to the internet, they’re going to be left behind,” Sheehan said. “This is another concrete example of injustice. Not only are African Americans dying from coronavirus at higher rates, not as many are getting their benefits.”

In small cities and towns like Sarasota, where the homeless population number less than 1,000 and nonprofit organizations know everyone by name, the effort to match those living in poverty with stimulus checks is easier than in bigger cities.

Krystal Frazier, who works fro Sarasota’s Homeless Outreach Team, said she’s signed up at least 30 clients so far and 75% have gotten checks.

“Some weren’t interested in filing,” Frazier said. “They didn’t want to take money they didn’t think was theirs. But most were really happy and grateful.”

Adam Hileman was one of the latter.

“My wife and I got our money a month ago,” said Hileman, who is back on the streets after a welcome respite from sleeping on concrete.

“We went to a hotel for three weeks.”

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