Volunteers helping DC residents receive stimulus funding sit under a tent at a table
Residents at the 801 East Men’s Shelter sign up for assistance from Catholic Charities’ financial stability network at a resource fair in hopes of receiving stimulus checks from the federal government. Photo by Jarrod Wardwell

Federal officials have sought to send emergency stimulus funding to millions of struggling Americans without jobs or basic necessities throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. But the money has failed to reach those who need it the most: low-income residents and members of the homeless community.

Local advocates and outreach volunteers have spent the last several months working to help the overlooked group file tax returns to provide the Internal Revenue Service with the information the agency requires for anyone to receive the emergency funding. Volunteers said many individuals have struggled to secure the cash because they have been unaware the stimulus existed or have never submitted tax records to the IRS. Some other residents who have filed their taxes to receive the stimulus have faced delays in receiving the checks from the government while continuing to live without a steady stream of income, local advocates said.

Individuals who earn less than $12,400 yearly are exempted from filing federal tax returns.

The federal government distributed three packages of stimulus checks to provide financial support during the health crisis. The first came at the pandemic’s onset last April through the CARES Act, which provided up to $1,200 to adult taxpayers. The second, part of the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021, offered a check of up to $600 from late December to January. The American Rescue Plan came as the third and most recent round of stimulus this past March, with checks totaling as much as $1,400 for taxpayers.

Officials with the IRS said they’ve worked to alert members of the homeless community about the stimulus throughout the pandemic. A release issued by the IRS in April states that officials have reminded people without a permanent address or bank account that they can still qualify for stimulus payments, also urging community groups and employers to spread information. The IRS posts information about earned income tax credits on their website and hosted an awareness day back in January as a campaign to educate more than 2 million people about stimulus checks through live events, news releases, and articles.

IRS spokesperson Anthony Burke did not return a request for comment.

“The IRS has been continuing to work directly with groups inside and outside the tax community to get information directly to people experiencing homelessness and other groups to help them receive Economic Impact Payments,” IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig said in the release. “The IRS is working hard on this effort, enabling millions of people who don’t normally file a tax return to receive these payments.”

Catholic Charities D.C., an independent social services agency, has led similar efforts to help low-income and unhoused people file tax returns to receive stimulus payments. Jim Shanahan, the director of the financial stability network at Catholic Charities, said most low-income locals haven’t received their stimulus payments. 

The financial stability network, which was established nearly five years ago, helps individuals who earn less than $56,000 a year file tax returns in hopes of securing their stimulus funds. The service is offered through the agency’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, which is operated by the IRS.

Catholic Charities participated in a resource fair at 801 East Men’s Shelter in Southeast earlier this month, operating a table where residents could sign up for financial assistance, including help filing their taxes and receiving stimulus checks. The table saw few visitors in the morning hours of the fair, but after a staff member at the shelter announced available services and the chance to secure payments from the IRS, more than 10 people rushed to file in line. After setting up at 9:30 a.m., Catholic Charities registered about 20 residents in need of stimulus for financial assistance. 

Shanahan said most people who earn less than $12,000 haven’t filed their tax returns since they aren’t required to do so, meaning the IRS is missing their records and unable to send them any checks. He said some reasons for stimulus check delivery delays include deliveries to the wrong address, stolen social security numbers, individuals who don’t qualify for the checks, and debit cards that residents accidentally discarded in the mail. He said volunteers from Catholic Charities request the IRS to send checks for unhoused residents to family members, friends, or nearby parishes if they don’t have a bank account set up.

“The IRS has no idea that these people exist,” Shanahan said. “The only way they’re going to learn that they exist for the two payments in 2020 is to actually file an income tax return.”

He said his network has helped file between about 100 to 200 tax returns through the IRS tax return form, known as Form 1040, or a non-filer tax portal for people who don’t qualify for the $12,000 taxpayer threshold during the first two rounds of stimulus. The IRS required tax return submissions for people to receive the third round of stimulus.

At the resource fair, Dornell Graves, a resident at the shelter in Southeast, said he filed his tax return forms three times earlier this year but never received any stimulus. Graves, who spent the last 40 years in an Arizona penitentiary, said he would use the checks to secure a job and eventually housing after making enough money selling food to locals in the District, hoping to invest in his own startup business.

“If they put a check in there tomorrow, that’s where my check is going to — it’s going to a place where I can lay my head at,” Graves said.

According to federal stimulus data on the American Rescue Plan, the IRS doled out nearly $43,580,000 nationwide through 1.5 million payments as of early June to people earning $10,000 or less each year those with no income. That’s about 11% of the total cash disbursements across all adjusted gross income levels in the country. 

Individuals who didn’t have income data available accounted for an even larger pool of the rollout, totaling nearly 26.3 million payments and more than $38.4 million.

David, another resident of the men’s shelter who declined to share his last name, said he secured his first stimulus check earlier during the pandemic but never received his second and third rounds of checks. He said he tried calling the IRS for assistance but never spoke to a representative after spending two to three hours on hold.

David, who lost his job moving office furniture early in the pandemic, said the stimulus would place him in a much better position to access potential jobs that could continue to improve his financial standing.

“It’s a big difference because if they can help me get some money started it might get me motivated to get a vehicle where I can get around to different jobs,” he said. 

To ensure that community members in need of financial support can receive stimulus payments, Shanahan said he wants to purchase a van equipped with computers and printers that volunteers can use to drive around the city to low-income neighborhoods and faith-based communities to offer help with tax filing.

Shanahan said he’s also working to educate the public, especially low-income and immigrant families, about another form of government aid: the child tax credit. He said immigrant families, even those with parents who don’t have a social security number, can still claim $1,400 per child through the government service.

“It’s really trying to reach people to explain to them the opportunity exists in the first place,” he said. “And we keep talking about the digital divide, and this divide is, it’s not digital, it’s just information divide. It’s just that there’s just the difficulty of getting this information in the hands of these families, to let them know about this opportunity to receive cash from the government — well-deserved cash.