Each month has an ebb and flow at the Compass Center on Seattle’s waterfront, where more than 13,000 homeless and people without addresses come for mail and banking.
It’s busy at the beginning of the month, as people come to cash social security checks and get EBT cards, according to Pete Kurtz-Glovas, who runs the Client Services Office at the center in Pioneer Square.
Then there’s a lull mid-month — people can afford to stay in hotels or with friends, or buy their own food — but as the end of the month draws near, people trickle in again to hang out in the day center and eat community meals.
There’s a chance the beginning of May could be even busier, Kurtz-Glovas said: That’s when many of Compass Center’s clients could start receiving the $1,200 stimulus payment the federal government is distributing to citizens in an effort to lessen the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
“A lot of people are about to have a lot of money, and they need a place to go that’s reliable,” Kurtz-Glovas said.
The funds primarily are being distributed through direct deposit and paper checks, and can also be deposited on bank-issued prepaid cards. The Internal Revenue Service is using bank account information it has on file to send the payments to people who file taxes or who receive government benefits like social security, while others may have to input their information on the IRS website.
As of April 1, among 13,026 households who have enrolled in the county’s Homeless Management Information System to request help for homelessness, 20% said they’d received social security benefits in the past.
Staff at the Compass Center have, as of Wednesday, handed out only 15 stimulus checks, but they expect to get many more in the coming months.
For some people living homeless, the economic impact payments could be a great help — especially for those who became recently homeless because of a financial crisis, said Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
“Homeless people are very resourceful, and we think a lot of them can find ways to dramatically improve their lives with the $1,200,” Berg said.
But Berg and other experts say it won’t be enough to get people into housing in most markets with high homelessness.
“The stimulus check is a one-time infusion of assistance, and we’re concerned about what is going to happen to the housing stability of those who are already struggling over the course of this crisis,” said Andrew Aurand, vice president for research at the National Low Income Housing Alliance. “Because we don’t have adequate emergency rental assistance.”
Jennifer Adams, outreach manager at the Bridge Care Center in Ballard who is working remotely with people who live in their cars or on the streets, said once her clients found out they were eligible, word spread “like wildfire.” People without bank accounts are trying to get their money delivered to prepaid debit cards, but most of them haven’t received any funds yet.
Most of the people Adams has talked to are planning to use the money on essentials for survival — food, hotel rooms, tents. Others, confused by the process for people who earn very little money, have given up or called the thing a scam.
“A lot of people don’t trust the government,” Adams said.
At the Compass Center, Phillip Westmoreland, 58, is still waiting for his check. A frequent street-sleeper with an accent that hints at his Kentucky roots, Westmoreland said he’s been on social security disability for years because of a spine injury.
But Westmoreland says the IRS website keeps telling him his “payment status” is not available.
“I’m just questioning whether I’m ever going to get one,” Westmoreland said.
If he does, Westmoreland plans to buy a bus ticket to Alaska, where he says he’ll have a place to stay where he can get back on his feet. He’s previously used his disability check to try to buy the gear to survive in Alaska, but he said he’s had his things stolen while he was sleeping three times in the last year and a half he’s been in Seattle.
“I’m going to get out of here,” Westmoreland said. He said with all the crime and substance use he sees as a homeless person, “Seattle’s not where I want to be right now.”
For those who will be staying, on its own $1,200 usually isn’t enough in the King County area for rent and a security deposit, according to Shkelqim Kelmendi, executive director of Housing Connector, who works with 50 nonprofits in King County to connect homeless people with housing.
Most of Housing Connector’s work involves helping case managers get their clients into housing built with help from tax credits or the Multi-Family Tax Exemption for developers and owners of new multi-family buildings who keep rent low on 20% to 25% of their units.
“With most properties requiring a rent-income ratio between two and a half to three, you still have to show that you have the means to pay that beyond that $1,200,” Kelmendi said. “I think it’s going to help individuals, but do I think it’s going to significantly increase people’s ability to access housing? I just don’t think it’s enough to make a difference.”
Many won’t get those means from government benefits: For instance, people on federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which provides money for low-income disabled people who don’t qualify for social security, only receive $783 per month.
Housing Connector has already seen a decrease due, Kelmendi believes, to case managers’ inability to meet with their clients and work on the complicated paperwork it takes to get into rent-reduced units; Housing Connector tracked 43% fewer people moving into housing in March than in February.
But for the people who’ve been homeless longer — many of whom have serious mental illness, substance use disorders and criminal records that can turn off landlords — this one-time payment won’t do much, several experts said. In a survey of over a thousand homeless street-sleepers, shelter-stayers, car-campers and others last year, 61% said their current episode of homelessness had lasted more than a year.
That same survey estimates there are more than 2,000 people in King County who, surveyors said, are chronically homeless: They’ve slept outside or in shelters for a year or longer, or bounced in and out of homelessness four times in the past three years, and they also have chronic health problems, psychiatric conditions or physical disabilities.
George Booth, 51, has been homeless nine years, he said, and he’s much more nihilistic about the future.
“When I do get the money, the first thing I want to do is go to the dispensary,” Booth said. “I’ve seen how many people they say are going to die of this thing. The government gave me some money before I die.”