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April 23, 2020

Nevada Current
Pashtana Usufzy

As many Americans rejoice in the appearance of government stimulus funds in their bank accounts and others eagerly await deposits and checks, low-income Nevadans and those without permanent housing are likely to face barriers in receiving their cuts of the relief funding.

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As many Americans rejoice in the appearance of government stimulus funds in their bank accounts and others eagerly await deposits and checks, low-income Nevadans and those without permanent housing are likely to face barriers in receiving their cuts of the relief funding.

“Everything for our clients is more difficult,” said Jim Berchtold, directing attorney for the Consumer Rights Project at Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada. “If you are a middle-income wage earner who has filed your taxes every year, you don’t have to do anything. If you’re a low-income person, everything requires some additional effort.”

For Nevadans who aren’t required to file federal taxes and those who lack stable housing, official identification documents and Internet access, even understanding how to obtain the $1,200 direct payment could present a challenge. Those barriers are further complicated by a lack of secure storage facilities for the cash and scams or debt collector pressures that could result in vulnerable Nevadans forking over needed funds. 

Merideth Spriggs, founder of local homeless services organization Caridad, said one of the biggest hurdles at the moment nationally is confusion. In a Facebook group for formerly homeless individuals, she notices members trying their best to help others resolve questions in the absence of official guidance.

“I haven’t heard of anybody offering help,” Spriggs said. “There’s lots of confusion in the group and people are trying to share what they know.”

Authorized by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the Internal Revenue Service began direct deposits of Economic Impact Payments to eligible individuals on April 11.

In order to ensure Americans receive the funds they’re owed, the IRS has launched various tools, including a system to check the status of a stimulus check and another allowing individuals who didn’t file taxes for 2018 and 2019 to submit their bank account information.

But frequent changes regarding automatic deposits have left many unsure as to the status of their payments. Overall stimulus deadlines are unclear and the IRS phone lines are swamped, Berchtold said.

“It’s just a mess,” he said. “I appreciate that it’s an overwhelming thing to try to get money out to every American, but from the end-user point of view, especially our clients who are typically low income, it has been a challenge.”

In the midst of the confusion, Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada has not received information regarding any local resources designed to help notify the homeless of their eligibility for the checks, said Leslie Carmine, the nonprofit’s media and community relations director.

The organization’s social services department hasn’t yet received any inquiries from homeless clients about the stimulus nor have any clients inquired about stimulus checks through the Renewing Hope program, which prepares homeless men for employment and provides them with a residential address.

Spriggs said it’s possible many homeless individuals in Clark County don’t even realize they’re eligible.

“Most people don’t have access online because even if they do have phones they’re struggling to find places to charge them,” she said. “It’s shining a magnifying glass on what we as homeless service providers know. I don’t feel like we have a really robust system anywhere in the country to deal with homelessness.”

In addition to a lack of resources for assistance in securing stimulus checks, low-income and homeless individuals in Southern Nevada face a slew of additional obstacles before they can claim and utilize their money.

Berchtold explained that low-income individuals are more likely to take out refund advance loans, through which tax preparers offer loans on clients’ tax refund amounts for a fee then collect the tax refunds themselves. As a result, Legal Aid has seen at least one local firm in Southern Nevada mistakenly receive clients’ stimulus checks and mail them back to the IRS, leaving the clients in limbo and reliant upon assistance from their congressional representatives.

Additionally, despite a statewide moratorium on evictions, some landlords at weekly motels have been “sneaky” in finding ways to remove tenants. National reports of landlords spying on tenants’ stimulus check statuses in recent days are a perfect example of ways that low-income Nevadans may be at a disadvantage. 

“It would be really tough to prove that your landlord is actually doing that,” Berchtold said. “We’ve been telling tenants that you’re under no legal obligation to hand your stimulus check over to your landlord.”

Even once the checks are in hand, some homeless individuals have no identification cards in order to be able to ultimately cash the checks. 

Cashing a check at a bank generally requires at least one form of official identification. Low-income individuals are more likely to be “unbanked,” and without a bank account or multiple forms of I.D., they may visit check-cashing stores that charge higher interest rates.

Bailey Bortolin, statewide advocacy, outreach and policy director for the Nevada Coalition of Legal Service Providers, warned against utilizing check cashing services or payday lenders to seek financial relief and instead encourages Nevadans to seek out alternative assistance from nonprofits like United Way should they need it.

“I would caution people with the old adage if it sounds too good to be true, it is,” Bortolin said via e-mail. “There’s a reason there are so many high interest storefronts — it’s incredibly profitable.”

Representatives of Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Chase Bank and Nevada State Bank confirmed their Southern Nevada branches will waive check-cashing fees for nonclients cashing stimulus checks and will also ensure the funds, if deposited automatically by the IRS, will not be seized to pay off overdrawn account balances, at least temporarily.

For Bank of America and Wells Fargo clients, that deferment of negative balances will last 30 days from the date the stimulus funds are deposited.

Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen, D-Nevada, both signed onto an April 7 letter demanding Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin ensure easier access to the funds for homeless individuals, as well as automatic payments for low-income individuals who utilize services like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

“Senator Cortez Masto is focused on addressing the challenges faced by homeless and unbanked individuals when trying to receive or cash their federal stimulus payments that they’re entitled to under the CARES Act,” Cortez Masto Press Secretary Lauren Wodarski said in a statement. “She has urged the Trump Administration to ensure all Nevadans understand their eligibility for and how to receive these payments.”

A spokesperson for Sen. Rosen said in a statement that her office will continue to seek answers on the issue of stimulus funds for the homeless.

“The Treasury Department needs to issue guidance on how homeless individuals can go about receiving their payments,” the statement said.