When Abel Campos was released from the California Men's Colony in January 2020 after roughly 12 years in prison, he didn't have much to help him start his new life: no bank account, no job, no place to call home.
Forced to live on the streets of San Luis Obispo, Campos tried to focus on meeting his parole requirements and finding a steady job. He found some work here and there, but COVID-19 hit just a few months later and left him without many options. Things looked pretty bleak until April, when Campos heard about the first round of federal economic impact payments, $1,200 checks that most Americans received from the IRS automatically in the mail or through direct deposit.
Campos, however, hadn't received such a payment. He hadn't filed tax returns during his imprisonment, and he didn't have a mailing address or access to a computer.
"So if you don't have any of those, well you're not gonna get it," Campos told New Times.
In April 2020, Congress passed a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill aimed at easing the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. That included payments of $1,200 that went directly to many Americans, followed by another $600 in the winter.
The IRS issued those payments via check or direct deposit using information included in 2018 and 2019 tax returns, posing a problem for former inmates and individuals experiencing homelessness, who often don't file tax returns. While it is possible to claim a stimulus check as a non-filer, those who do so need, at the very least, valid identification, a mailing address, and internet access. For those experiencing chronic or unsheltered homelessness, who sometimes don't even have basic identification, that process creates more problems. But they are issues that can be solved.
Now with another $1,400 on its way, local homeless services agencies and volunteers are working to get the word out to those who need it most. Campos is doing the same.
He wasn't willing to give up on what he considered to be "free money," and he eventually found a friend with a computer and paid her $100 to help him register as a non-filer through the IRS website. Once he had computer access, Campos said the process was actually pretty easy. He just provided some personal identification information and had the check delivered to his parole officer's address. When the check arrived in June 2020, he cashed it at Bank of America—federal checks can be cashed at any bank—and got it all in $100s.
That check and the following $600 helped him get back on his feet. He's still homeless, but now he has a checking account, a full-time job, and there's more stimulus money on its way.
He's sharing what he knows with others in the local homeless community. All you need, he tells them, is a valid ID, an address, and Internet access.
"A lot of these homeless people don't know about this stimulus check when you talk to them," he said.
- File Photo By Jayson Mellom
- OFF THE GRID Those living in homeless camps across SLO County sometimes don't have the documentation needed to get their economic impact payments.
Like Campos, several residents of a homeless camp near the Bob Jones Trail told New Times in March 2021 that they'd received both their $1,200 and $600 payments, despite lacking bank accounts and mailing addresses. One man said he sent his checks to his sister's house and then cashed them at various banks. Another said he signed up as a non-filer on a friend's cellphone. A newly homeless woman said she received the payments automatically on a prepaid credit card that she uses to get regular disability benefits. She said her boyfriend also eventually received his check, but it was after a struggle with the IRS website, which he also accessed through a friend's phone.
These are the kinds of obstacles Paul Frankel helps folks overcome as a benefits advocate at the 5Cities Homeless Coalition (5CHC), a nonprofit that provides various homeless services to South County residents. 5CHC assists clients involved in case management programs in accessing various government benefits, and Frankel said he's helped a number of clients navigate the economic impact payment process throughout the pandemic.
For some, the process has been pain free. Clients who receive long-term assistance through Social Security Insurance or Social Security Disability Insurance are usually paid on a monthly basis through their personal bank accounts or government-issued "direct express" debit cards, and they receive their stimulus checks the same way.
At least that's how it's supposed to work, Frankel said, "but I have clients in that category that did not automatically receive their stimulus."
Even with his professional experience of wading through bureaucratic processes, Frankel said determining the status of such payments and finding a new way for his clients to receive their checks was complicated enough that it left him scratching his head at times.
"For those not on long-term disability," he said, "it has been very difficult."
Some 5CHC clients don't even have IDs and have to start there. Those without mailing addresses and bank accounts can either use the 5CHC office address to receive checks in the mail, buy pre-paid credit cards with a direct deposit feature for $5, or sign up for free bank accounts online.
Most people experiencing homelessness don't file federal income tax returns, leaving the IRS with outdated information to work with, if any at all. Frankel said some of his clients had to cancel stimulus checks that were sent to old addresses or deposited in invalid bank accounts. Some are still waiting for replacements to arrive.
Now the IRS is asking those who didn't receive the first two economic impact payments to file a 2020 tax return and claim a "recovery rebate credit." Even those who don't normally file tax returns are eligible, and Frankel said that's the best way to ensure a person has received all past payments and will receive those yet to come. A 2020 state income tax return is also required to receive the $600 California stimulus payment.
"While we have been helping clients determine the best course of action in getting their payments, we are unable to serve many people who ask for help getting their payment but are not engaging 5CHC services," Frankel wrote in an email to New Times. "I definitely see a need for that type of targeted help in our community!"
Staff at 40 Prado Homeless Services Center are also helping their clients get economic impact payments, and Deputy Director Grace McIntosh said the process has been quick and easy for those who have the proper identification documentation.
She also noted that anyone who has ever used services at 40 Prado, regardless of their status—even if they were kicked out of the shelter at some point for behavioral issues—can still use 40 Prado's P.O. box as a mailing address. Staff keep mail on-site for two weeks, and it can be picked up between 1 and 1:15 p.m. every day.
If someone asks for help, McIntosh said, "we'll help them." Δ
Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached at email@example.com.