Most Americans seem to think homeless people have absolutely nothing. They react to someone on the street with a smartphone as if they were born naked as a jaybird just last week and somehow blew scandalous amounts of money on a ‘luxury’ item.
This isn't true. In most cases, something like a phone can be one of the last remnants from a time when you weren’t homeless. Furthermore, a phone on the street is hardly a luxury item. It’s more often a lifeline. Among other critical things, it can allow you to call the bank and check your balance, to see if you can eat that day.
Although some homeless people are truly penniless with no income at all, others do have some kind of money coming in, just not enough to maintain a middle-class lifestyle. Some of the more common forms of income include alimony, retirement checks, social security, and disability payments. Additionally, many people have jobs, casual earned income (like collecting recyclables), or they may do freelance work. Others have benefits, such as food stamps. The problem is that many of the income streams mentioned still require a bank account.
Given this fact, many do have bank accounts. For some types of income, you simply can’t get the money without a direct deposit arrangement. In most cases, you probably had that bank account before you became homeless. During any stint of homelessness it’s far easier to keep an account you previously had than to get a new one while on the street. That said, it is possible to open a bank account while homeless. I’ve done it and I know other people who have done so too.
There are challenges in trying to establish or maintain an account while homeless though. For one thing, banks are picky about the kind of address they’ll take. They typically want a residential address and tend not to take a PO Box for certain things. You may have no mailing address at all, or only a PO Box, or you may be relying upon an address with a homeless services center. These last two may be rejected if you try to update your address online. Thus, you may even find yourself unable to update your mailing address, if you have one. Worse still, some banks charge a fee. This can be quite burdensome on a limited income.
Luckily, there are some simple workarounds that can help make it feasible to maintain a checking account while homeless. There are a few tricks that can help with the address issues and even the fee.
For example, having a mailing address with a service that gives you a street address instead of a PO Box number can give you a viable mailing address that a bank will take. It looks like a residential address, and they tend to assume the box number is an apartment number. Letting them think this is a little white lie that can make life on the street easier. Alternatively, if you have a friend or relative you trust, you can also use their address for your bank account.
One person I know set up a new bank account using a homeless services address and phone number, but arranged to pick up their new debit card at the bank branch because they weren’t comfortable having it go to the center. This worked too.
Some banks offer free checking. Although in certain cases, you need a minimum deposit of at least $500. This can be met with alimony or a retirement check. In other cases, you can combine it with a savings account and the bank will move money to savings for every transaction. It involves moving money back, but it can get your bank fee down to zero, which can help your limited funds go further. However, do remember that federal law mandates no more than six electronic funds transfers for free, after which you get hit with a fee for every transaction. You can move money around as much as you like via ATM or in person at a bank branch.
Finally, modern technology is making it easier to keep a bank account while homeless. Getting paperless statements and accessing your account online and at ATMs can help hide your homeless status. Even if you’ve no address, getting paperless statements means your banking information is not being mailed to a total stranger at your last residence. Some bank branches can now print a new debit card on site, allowing you to get a replacement card in person with ID, even if you have no physical address.
There’s really no reason why a person should have to have a physical residence to have a bank account. Banking rules often end up being far harsher for the poorest of the poor to deal with than they do for the criminals they’re presumably intended to police.
ATMs are being developed that can check your ID via iris scan. In the future, I’d like to see it become possible to get a bank account based on something like an email address, supported by a thumbprint for verification. We need to balance the genuine security concerns of the banking industry with the needs of the poor in an increasingly mobile and connected world where borders are becoming more permeable and geographical ties less distinct.
You can read more from DM Traylor on her blog, San Diego Homeless Survival Guide.
This article was authored in American English