For many people, receiving a COVID-19 stimulus check was as easy as checking their bank account and finding hundreds of government dollars inside.
But for some people, like many living homeless at the Purple Cliffs camp, getting the financial boost has been far from simple.
It’s not an eligibility issue. It’s about barriers: not having a bank account, identification, the right tax forms.
Three times during the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government has disbursed stimulus checks to help Americans – including those without permanent addresses – recover financially.
Aquila Cota, who lives at Purple Cliffs in Durango, has yet to receive his first stimulus payment.
“It’s on its way,” Cota said Tuesday. “I had a friend do it for us from his computer since he used to be an accountant.”
A year ago, millions of people around the country began receiving the first payment of $1,200. In December, the eagerly awaited second payment, $600, started to arrive.
The main issue for people at Purple Cliffs comes down to taxes. The Internal Revenue Service uses past tax filings to send out stimulus payments. But that method can bypass people without taxable income, for example, single adults younger than 65 who make less than $12,400.
During the 2008 stimulus rollout, about 17% of those who were eligible (many of whom also had very low incomes) never received the money because they didn’t file taxes, according to a 2019 report published by The Hamilton Project, a policy group.
Some of the 50 or so residents at the La Posta Road (County Road 213) campsite have bank accounts, disability assistance or Social Security benefits and automatically received the payments, said Jim Micikas, who volunteers at Purple Cliffs through the Neighbors in Need Alliance.
Others want to receive the payments, but they don’t have a fixed address. Or they can receive a check, but don’t have a bank account and can’t cash it. If they don’t have a form of identification, that makes starting a bank account more difficult.
A few distrust government systems, and two people weren’t aware of the stimulus payments, Micikas said.
“Then there’s a security issue after you get the money ... because they don’t have a bank account to draw upon,” he said.
Durango residents and community groups have stepped up to offer support.
Manna, a Durango soup kitchen, allows people to use its address for receiving mail and guides them through the process for identification document replacement. Friends might cash checks or accept mail for the campers, Micikas said.
Durango Vineyard Church brought a computer and Wi-Fi hot spot to Purple Cliffs to help people complete a short non-filer tax form. They helped about 40 people, and of those, about 75% hadn’t filed taxes recently, said Jeff Sutherland, mission coordinator for the church and a board member at Manna.
“My overall experience would be things involving more than one or two steps, it becomes overwhelming,” Sutherland said. “But with somebody else there ... they’re able to do what they need to do.”
The non-filer form isn’t an option for the third stimulus, approved in March, Sutherland said. The full $1,400 goes to any individual who earns less than $75,000 of adjusted gross income, heads of households who earn less than $112,500 and married couples who earn less than $150,000.
People have to complete a full 2020 tax filing to receive this payment, he said. The tax deadline is May 17.
“That’s thrown a wrinkle in there. I don’t, and our organization doesn’t, necessarily know all the required tax things to be able to help them fill out their actual tax return,” Sutherland said.
A former accountant is helping a few people at Purple Cliffs with their filings, Micikas said. The IRS website also lists free options for filing, including a free tax help search tool that lists two locations in Durango. Or, if people have identification, Sutherland refers them to Liberty Tax Office in Walmart or the Durango Public Library.
While the library can’t provide tax assistance, it can direct people to tax forms in English and Spanish and refer to the IRS filing site, said Sandy Irwin, library director.
“We help the people at Purple Cliffs because we know that’s the one place we can consistently be,” Sutherland said. “There’s still unknown numbers of unhoused throughout the area that we haven’t worked with.”
For those who have received the payments, the extra money served as a stop-gap measure during the pandemic when support services were closed or less available, Sutherland said.
“About 85% of them were using the funds ... to fill in the gaps for a lack of income,” he said.
Tim Sargent, a camp leader, was already registered with Social Security and automatically received his payments.
He upgraded his tent and bought Redwood boots, a chainsaw and safety equipment. Cutting wood would help people heat their tents or be a source of income. He also put some aside in savings toward purchasing property in the future, he said.
“I’m trying to put some money together so we can get private property for us retirees ... a small farming thing, with chickens, rabbits, that kind of thing,” Sargent said.
One person at Purple Cliffs sent a care package to his girlfriend. Another, who plans to fix his truck to help secure a job, filed 2020 taxes but the second and third payments were still processing.
Cota, who has also taken a leadership role in managing the camp, plans to use his stimulus to pay off bills.
“It feels great. No more burden, no more pressure,” he said. “Whatever money I have left, I don’t know yet.”