In a time when finances are particularly uncertain for many, the United Way of Washtenaw County will continue to provide free tax support to the community this tax season.
For six years, the United Way of Washtenaw County has held a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program to help community members understand their financial options. VITA is a national Internal Revenue Service program providing free tax preparation for individuals and families with low income, people with disabilities, the elderly, and those with limited English proficiency.
The United Way of Washtenaw County's VITA volunteers are trained or certified tax professionals. In addition to preparing tax returns, they can provide information about special tax credits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), Child Tax Credit, and Credit for the Elderly or Disabled.
In 2019, 200 local volunteers assisted about 1,200 individuals and families, accepting tax documents in person and, as the pandemic and resulting safety measures reached Washtenaw County, via scanned copies.
Emma Roeder, the United Way of Washtenaw County's VITA program manager, says more than 1,000 of those individuals and families had participated in the program in previous years.
United Way of Washtenaw County's VITA program manager Emma Roeder.
"People who come back year after year are consistently less stressed and more informed," Roeder says. "It’s a really fun program."
In past years, the program has resulted in more than $1.3 million in tax refunds to Washtenaw County residents. Roder says those refunds can have a significant impact on families, and VITA volunteers can help people claim credits they might not have identified on their own.
"I see the impact it has on people’s financial stability," Roeder says. "For many families, [a tax refund] is the largest single amount of money they receive all year. And for many families, those credits are important."
The program also partners with local organizations to broaden its reach and provide assistance to vulnerable groups. One long-standing partner is Michigan Medicine Housing Bureau for Seniors (HBS), a housing support program for older adults in Washtenaw County.
HBS staff train as VITA volunteers, provide tax preparation at senior living communities, and visit homebound adults to collect tax documents. Last year, HBS VITA volunteers assisted more than 300 seniors with taxes.
Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program with the United Way of Washtenaw County.
Matthew Cremin, HBS foreclosure prevention coordinator, says partnering with VITA is a natural fit for HBS.
"[HBS] is trying to do holistic assessments on people, whether it's financial or health, and we’re digging deeper than what people might expect," Cremin says. "Tax preparation is part of financial stability."
Cremin says the VITA program can be especially helpful for seniors since many have limited options to increase their income. Filing for tax credits, such as the Home Heating Credit, can help older adults access funds they might not have otherwise had.
HBS foreclosure prevention coordinator Matthew Cremin.
The partnership with VITA also provides opportunities for HBS to expand its own reach among seniors in the county.
"It’s an opportunity to build trust and partnership, and allows them to ask questions," Cremin says. "Sometimes we can get people connected with resources beyond what we're helping with in the moment."
Due to COVID-19 and visitation restrictions at senior living facilities, Cremin expects tax assistance to be delayed, extending past the traditional tax season. However, most seniors file for credits that are not due until September, Cremin says.
Roeder says the United Way of Washtenaw County will follow traditional tax season deadlines and support all who qualify, but will operate using social distancing precautions. Volunteers will accept scanned tax documents, and there are multiple "Scan and Go" sites available throughout Washtenaw County, such as the Manchester Community Resource Center.
Additionally, the United Way of Washtenaw County will offer a fully virtual option so individuals can submit photos of their documents online.
Appointments are now being scheduled for the 2021 program, and VITA volunteers will begin accepting and preparing tax documents on Feb. 1. A full list of Scan and Go sites is available on the United Way of Washtenaw County's website.
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Emily Benda is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.