Helping homeless file taxes

In just over a week, six volunteers will start filing up to 500 tax returns for people with little to no income at the Shepherds of Good Hope homeless shelter in downtown Ottawa.

The Liberals gave volunteer-driven clinics like this a boost in last week's budget, bringing annual spending on the "community volunteer income tax program" to $13 million, and allowing them to operate year-round.

Many federal benefits for low-income people, including the revamped workers' benefit and the Canada Child Benefit, as well as provincial and municipal benefits, are calculated through income tax returns. More returns filed means more benefits.

Susan Alcott, who oversees the tax clinic at the Shepherds of Good Hope, said many of the people using her clinic don't realize they can receive benefits for filing a return.

"One of the misconceptions that our clients have is that they pay taxes. Our clients don't pay taxes," she said.

"Our clients can only gain from submitting their returns."

It is the second time since taking office that the Liberals increased spending for the program, in which more than 2,300 organizations and 17,000 volunteers help homeless, Indigenous Peoples, newcomers, seniors and people with disabilities file tax returns. The extra money should help manage the growth in demand at clinics like the one at Shepherds of Good Hope.

"We realized very quickly that while we were providing the service to our shelter clients, there were a lot more people in the community who also needed access to getting their taxes done," Alcott said of the growth.

Underlying the budget decision was a decision a year ago by the Canada Revenue Agency to do research that had little to do with numbers.

Last March and April, the agency researchers conducted in-depth interviews with people at volunteer tax clinics or in shelters to identify behaviour patterns that could help the government improve programs and outreach to low-income and marginalized populations.

They interviewed 31 men and 11 women, ranging in age from early 20s to mid-70s. Among them, 30 filed a tax return in 2016. Just under half lived in shelters at the time of the study; six had children, with two getting the Canada Child Benefit.

"Many of us were trained as economists, where large numbers are always what we're looking for," said Mireille Ethier, director general of the change and innovation directorate at CRA. The small study showed the agency it could "draw conclusions because of the depth of the interviews and the time that you spend with people," she said.

One woman in the study spoke at length about how filing taxes was a civic duty. One man curtly said it wasn't on his radar at all. Some were afraid that filing taxes would put them in the government's cross hairs, particularly if they previously had financial issues.

A common thread for all was daily concerns that took priority over administrative tasks like filing taxes, as well as chronic issues such as mental health problems, said Amy Wilson, a graduate student at the CRA's innovation lab and a lead researcher on the project.

"These people have really complicated lives," she said.

"Managing those types of chronic conditions while living in precarious environments like shelters or rooming houses or on the street is a fairly difficult experience."

The researchers recommended the agency find ways to help homeless people more easily verify their identity with the CRA, particularly if they didn't have access to necessary documents.

Likewise, there was a need to ensure that the trend towards more online services didn't act as a barrier to homeless people without easy access to the internet, said Aaron Rosenberg, manager of the CRA's innovation lab.

When tax filing season opened late last month, the CRA launched a service for almost one million low-income, or fixed-income earners that will let them file returns by answering a series of short questions on a dedicated phone line.

The new phone service means any tax credits and benefits are automatically applied without the need to fill out forms.

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