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How to get your stimulus check if you're experiencing homelessness

Some advocates say it leaves many homeless Californians out of the stimulus.

SACRAMENTO, Calif — With a third federal stimulus check on the way, and the Golden State Stimulus recently passed into law, many who are homeless still face a lot of obstacles getting this much-needed assistance.

For Michelle Lyons, who has lived in an encampment under the I-5 overpass in Sacramento for three years, the first obstacle is finding accurate information about how to apply and collect her stimulus checks.

It’s very hard to get information out here, because people move, or you can’t afford the newspaper,” said Lyons.

When we spoke to Lyons two weeks after Governor Newsom signed the Golden State Stimulus package, she hadn’t heard anything about it. She said information usually only gets to her community through word of mouth.

Lyons said she’s on Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, which does qualify her for the $600 check from the state. According to California Department of Finance representative H.D. Palmer, anyone experiencing homelessness is eligible for the Golden State Stimulus if they are currently receiving CalWORKs, SSI/SSP, or CAPI.

Some advocates say this still leaves many homeless Californians out of the stimulus.

While It’s a really good-intentioned stimulus package, the impact on our guests that need that extra income is huge. It just creates another situation where they can’t access help that they so desperately need,” said Shannon Dominguez-Stevens, Director of the Maryhouse program at homeless service provider Sacramento Loaves & Fishes.

She said that many of the people her organization serves either aren’t on those assistance programs or don’t qualify for them.

State Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco) said he hopes to connect more people to public benefit programs like CalWORKs, SSI/SSP, and CAPI through AB 2520, a bill he wrote that went into effect in January of this year. The law requires health care providers to give medical records to non-profits free of charge.

“We’re trying to remove all of the barriers for low-income folks, particularly homeless folks that are trying to access our social safety net programs to do so,” Chiu said.

There are other ways to qualify for the Golden State Stimulus if you aren’t on CalWORKs, SSI/SSP, or CAPI. Anyone with an annual income of $30,000 or less and claims the California Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) qualifies. You may also qualify if you earn $75,000 or less and file with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). In both cases, however, this requires having taxable income.

As for federal stimulus checks, the IRS’s tool for non-filers cut off in November, but you can still receive last year’s checks by claiming the Recovery Rebate Credit on a 2020 tax return. For this most recent $1400 check, you’ll also have to file 2020 taxes, but you can file with no income.

For the unhoused, filing taxes can be an obstacle in itself. At Loaves and Fishes, for example, Dominguez-Stevens said computer access is limited due to the pandemic. Some Sacramento Public Libraries have computer availability by appointment only.

“It’s just hurdle after hurdle,” Dominguez-Stevens said.

As for how to file, the IRS website has a list of links to free file options. You can also get help from an IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, which offers free tax preparation assistance for low-income people, though appointments are limited.

Once you’ve filed, where can you send that stimulus money if you don’t have direct deposit or a fixed address? The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau suggests the following:

  •  Ask a shelter, direct service provider, place of worship, friend, or relative if they can serve as your address 
  • Use a post office box, or rent a personal mailbox if you have the means
  • Contact a post office in your area and ask if they will hold your mail as General Delivery

Bob Erlenbusch, Executive Director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, said he wants to see the state and federal government work in partnership with direct service providers, advocates, and unhoused people to remove the many obstacles

“I don’t think they really thought about the challenges that people experiencing homelessness would have in applying the way they’re saying to apply,” he said.

Erlernbusch said he believes that making programs like tax clinics widely available similar to Covid-19 testing sites, or coordinating stimulus sign-up drives modeled after voter sign-up drives, could go a long way in connecting more people experiencing homelessness to their stimulus checks.

In the meantime, Lyons hopes to see her Golden State Stimulus Check in the coming months. She says that money could help her fix the transmission on her car so she can get around more easily, or just not have to go hungry as often.

“I try to save,” she said. “I only eat one meal a day. How much can you save?”

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