NORTH CAROLINA, USA — For families teetering on the edge of homelessness, a program meant to help can punish them, because of their situation.
Living in a hotel at the time of filing for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, Morgan Wyatt said she provided a PO Box instead of a residential address. As a result, the mother of three girls (4, 2 and 1) said the North Carolina Division of Employment Security placed a lengthy hold on her benefits, forcing her family to live in a car for a month.
"It was delayed over five weeks because we didn't have a physical address because we are homeless," Wyatt said. "It was the hardest thing I actually had to experience in my whole entire life. Every single morning when (my oldest daughter) woke up she would say, 'Mommy, do we get a home today? Did they release your money today?' For a 4-year-old to have to worry about that, it's hard."
Wyatt said the last year has remained a challenge for the family. She said her youngest was born with a birth defect, which forced her to take time off work and eventually forced the family into a hotel.
Then, she said, the pandemic made a bad situation worse.
"We've been in and out of shelters while we've been looking for work, but with COVID-19, my job has not started back up," Wyatt said. "I clean beach houses in the Outer Banks."
Wyatt said she filed for PUA and initially received the money, but DES froze her account in July due to a lack of a residential address. It's a small, but critically important detail that many people who file for unemployment may take for granted.
According to the North Carolina Division of Employment Security, the mandatory residential address helps the state identify claimants, properly assign federal wages, and detect potential fraud.
Wyatt's family isn't the only one facing this dilemma.
Brandy Haynes is the lead attorney with the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy's Unemployment Insurance Project.
"We are seeing more and more folks contacting us who are having some housing insecurity issues in conjunction with their unemployment," Haynes said.
The non-profit has spent months helping people navigate the challenges of filing and collecting, including families facing housing uncertainty.
While every case is different, Haynes said families can use temporary housing for their addresses.
"If they were staying in a shelter, in a hotel, we would want to provide as much as that as we possibly could," Haynes said. "If you're eligible and we can somehow find a way to potentially provide some sort of documentation that states where you're going to be staying, then I think that there's a path forward or at least something for us to work with."
A DES spokesperson confirmed temporary housing can be used.
"When a person is filing for unemployment, the instructions are clear on the application that they must enter a residential address," DES spokesperson Larry Parker said. "It can be a temporary address. We have claimants who have used a temporary address such as a shelter while receiving benefits."
Wyatt learned that lesson the hard way. She said thankfully, the state removed her unemployment hold and restored her benefits in August.
"That was a really, really big relief, but we still have a lot of obstacles to come," she said.
For now, she said her family has some stability. However, Wyatt didn't get here on her own. She said good Samaritans stepped up to help with gas, food and shelter, which helped the family bridge the gap.
"(A woman) saw us struggling and she wanted to help and get the kids off the street and into a hotel room," Wyatt said. "If it wasn't for those complete strangers, I don't know where my family would be."
Those who need help navigating the unemployment process can call the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy's hotline at (980) 256-3979.