WoodGreen Community Service’s tax clinic runs year round to support people living on a low income

14 September 2017
Author: Ansley Dawson
WoodGreen Community Services has partnered with Prosper Canada to deliver proven financial empowerment interventions to people living on low incomes in Toronto through its Ontario Financial Empowerment Champions (Ontario FEC) project, funded by the Government of Ontario.

WoodGreen runs a Community Volunteer Income Tax Program, supported by the Canada Revenue Agency that has been in operation for over 20 years. During the March-April tax season, our team of staff and over 175 volunteers prepare simple tax returns for low-income clients at multiple locations throughout the East End of Toronto. During the rest of the year, the tax clinic continues to operate out of our main office at 815 Danforth Ave and East Scarborough Storefront at 4040 Lawrence Ave East. In 2016 alone, WoodGreen processed 5583 returns, with close to 40 per cent of those completed outside of the traditional tax season. 
 
Of the many tax clinics operating in Toronto, WoodGreen runs the largest year-long clinic with 5166 clients served already this year. If clients have any tax related issues outside of March – April, they typically experience a service desert for the rest of the year, finding little or no support. Running a tax clinic is a massive undertaking, and requires extensive resources in terms of staff, volunteers, time and coordination, so it is a challenge for many agencies to provide this service. 
 
What some clients don’t realize is that filing taxes is the backbone for many other benefits they receive. If they fail to file their taxes on time, they may find many of their supports cut off shortly thereafter. For example, the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) can account for nearly half of some client’s income. They only need to apply for GIS once, but they must file taxes every year to avoid a disruption of service. This is why it is extremely important to have a year round tax service – when benefits are cut off in the summer months, people need a place to turn for support in navigating the system to file their taxes and reinstate their benefits. 
 
Over the past three years, we have continued to experience a significant demand for tax services outside of March - April, so we expanded our service to two days a week into the summer months. We are available year round to support our clients with any issues that arise, acting as a constant support. Sometimes clients receive a request for more supporting documents, most commonly rent receipts, and are required to respond within 30 days, which can be a daunting task. In the case of the Canada Child Benefit, they may be asked for detailed documentation, like birth certificates, letters from doctors and schools. 
 
Many of our clients are newcomers where English is not their first language, or they have limited experience communicating with the Canada Revenue Agency. When they receive an official document from the government, like a notice of assessment, audit, or request for supporting documents, they can panic and feel overwhelmed about how to respond. We help them to understand the process, lead them through their response and make them feel more at ease about the situation.
 
Another unique aspect of WoodGreen’s tax clinic is that our Financial Empowerment Counsellors are also trained social workers. We see a wide range of situations, from clients looking to file a simple tax return to clients in an extreme crisis situation, facing eviction or food shortage. Our counsellors are able to connect them with the most appropriate supports as needed. 
 
Financial security relies on getting your taxes done – taxes are connected to everything else, like the Canada Child Benefit, GIS, subsidized paramedical supports or mobility devices, or housing, just to name a few. Achieving financial stability while living on a low income is extremely challenging, but WoodGreen’s tax clinic is here to help, with free information, counselling and support for people living on a low income in our community. We work to empower our clients with the knowledge and skills they need to manage their finances and make informed decisions.
 

THE AUTHOR

Ansley Dawson is the Supervisor of the Financial Empowerment program at WoodGreen Community Services. Along with a team of Financial Empowerment Counsellors, Ansley works to help people living on a low income achieve financial stability, with free information, counselling and support.

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