Tax clinics offer valuable outreach

This year thousands of people across Toronto will turn to free tax clinics to file their taxes and ensure they get the services and benefits they are entitled to.

Nancy Garrow, a retired paralegal who will volunteer at the St. Christopher House tax clinic for her fifth consecutive year, said for people with low income, or no income at all, filing for income tax and getting into the system can be a turning point in their lives.

She recalled a young man who came to the clinic recovering from years of drug addiction, hoping to get a hold of his finances so he could go back to school.

“When we finally filed his returns for him, we did about six years for him.  He was going to get about $2, 500,” she said. “I remember him because it was like a light went off for him; ‘I can make a change in my life that’s going to be significant,’ (he thought).”

St. Christopher House, a secular community group funded in part by the United Way, is ready to open its fifth tax clinic since 2003. It has trained 20 volunteers year. The clinic will run from March 3 to April 30 and will operate out of four locations. St. Christopher house focuses its efforts in downtown Toronto’s west-end.

Last year, St. Christopher House ran four of the Greater Toronto Area’s 61 “Community Volunteer Income Tax Program locations,” according to Barbara Gal-Jagielski, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Revenue Agency (CRA). In 2007, 700 volunteers completed over 15,000 tax and benefit returns.

The free clinics are open to single people who make less than $25,000 and couples or single parents who make less than $30,000. An additional $2,000 is added to the threshold for each dependent.

Five-fold increase in number of people served

Miryam Zeballos, the Coordinator of the St. Christopher House Financial Advocacy and Problem Solving Program, said they have seen a five-fold increase in the number of clients they serve. Last year’s clinic saw volunteers file on behalf of almost 1,000 people, resulting in over $1.6 million in returns, she said.

Zeballos noted the government relies on the income tax system to distribute Child Benefits, the Ontario Disability Support Program, Old Age Security and energy rebates.

“The government transfers income through the tax system,” she noted. “If you don’t do a return, [then] in August, your benefits are cut.”

The CRA Trains volunteer tax preparers each year from October to December for free. St. Christopher house also trains its volunteers on how to deal with problems that their clients often face.

According to Garrow, the tax clinic often acts as a gateway through which their clients get further financial and legal advice.

“We’re dealing with people who have street salaries, or people who are on social assistance or people who are on ODSP,” Garrow said. “And we get seniors, so we’re just getting them old age security … so they’re pretty straight forward returns that we do.”

Garrow, who has volunteered all her life, said that working at the clinic has changed the way she views many people and the system they are confronted with.

“Nobody wants to be low-income,” she said. “(I’ve also realized) how complicated the system is and how problematic it is for people to sort through it.  If we can help them, then that’s great.”