By Jen Fletcher, 2017 Get It Back Campaign Intern
It’s National Hunger and Homeless Awareness week, a great time to consider improving your VITA site’s outreach efforts to those affected by homelessness. For homeless workers, money from tax credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) can be used towards rent, security deposits, and other housing costs. For a variety of reasons, those experiencing homelessness may have trouble filing tax returns. Many earn less than the IRS minimum income requirement to file a return, don’t know where to get free tax help, or lack necessary tax documents.
Mary Frances Kenion is the Director of Programs at Bridges to Independence in Arlington, Virginia, an organization that assists families currently and at-risk of becoming homeless. In collaboration with Virginia Cooperative Extension, program volunteers include accredited financial counselors, who encourage clients to file their taxes through local VITA sites and use their tax return to help achieve their financial goals. Mary identified four key elements to connecting clients with tax preparation services and financial education programs.
1. Ramp up street outreach at the end of December. Although year-round outreach is important, many families become homeless or experience housing instability immediately after the holiday season. Increase your outreach efforts following the winter holidays and into the new year to help your campaign reach the newly-homeless and housing insecure population.
2. Offer free food and child care to inform participants about VITA sites. Snacks or meals are generally useful to attract participation for any event, and can be critical when reaching out to families experiencing homelessness. Lack of child care frequently prevents families experiencing homelessness from participating in events or programs. These services increase the likelihood that some workers will be able to file a tax return at your site.
3. Help workers obtain necessary documentation to file a tax return. In addition to replacement W-2s, many individuals experiencing homelessness lack birth certificates, Social Security cards, and other personal documentation. Replacing these documents requires other forms of identification (and, depending on the state, a reliable mailing address to receive the new documents). The process can be challenging to navigate.
The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) employees come directly to the local Department of Human Services to assist clients with replacing documents. Birth certificates, which are often needed to acquire additional documentation, can be replaced directly through the DMV in some states. Look up your state’s vital records offices to learn the process and any fees to replace identifying documents.
4. Incorporate outreach to homeless workers without children. The EITC can provide a meaningful financial boost even though the credit is smaller than the one for workers with children. Identify other services that workers may need, such as connection to benefit programs, counseling services, or employment support. Consider participating in a Stand Down. These grassroots events hosted across the country connect homeless veterans to a range of resources including grooming, medical, and legal services.
For more information and outreach ideas, check out our outreach strategies to reach homeless workers. If you need help developing your outreach approach for your free tax site, contact us to arrange an individual strategy session for your program.