Beta Alpha Psi Makes a Difference
March 15, 2008
It started with a casual question, "What can our chapter do to help?" that has led to a commitment to the homeless in our community. To help us understand what we were getting into, Jeff Ward from the Opportunity Center (coordinator of the 38 shelters in El Paso) came to the chapter with information on the homeless. In El Paso, almost half of the homeless are women with children. This was our target market. Homeless women are more successful in returning to a normal life than men. They generally stay in shelters for shorter periods of time, and they work while in the shelter. This is where we came in. Our task was to help them understand why they needed to file a tax return and the importance of the Earned Income Tax Credit, as the EITC could qualify them for a refund of over $4,700 for each family.
We are providing electronic filing of tax returns under the guidance of the Internal Revenue Service. This is a unique collaboration between the IRS, non-profit agencies and our chapter volunteers. We were told this has never been tried before. Training started right after final exams so that we would be ready come January to start preparing returns. Another unique aspect of our service is that we are going to the shelters to provide this service. Our hope is to encourage these women to have us prepare their returns rather than going to a paid preparer. Certain paid preparers prey on these women with the promise of a quick refund, actually a rapid anticipation loan (RAL), at an incredibly high cost of 187% (NCLC/CFA 2005 RAL report)). By providing free tax preparation, we are allowing these women to keep all of their refund which they can use to start a new life.
First we needed to gain trust—from the agencies, their staff and the shelter residents—a major obstacle. Most residents are Hispanic; Spanish is their first language, and the one that they are more comfortable with. We decided that all interactions as well as resource materials would be in both Spanish and English. Not really a problem as most of our members are bilingual.
Our chapter decided on personal visits to the shelters bringing Christmas gifts, personal care kits as well as new blankets, disposable diapers and other basic necessities. One shelter received a new pair of shoes for each child in residence (67 pairs).
Preparation of the tax returns will provide us the springboard to provide other financial learning. We plan to maintain a continuing relationship with these shelters throughout the semester with the goal of helping these women set up checking and savings accounts, learning how to budget their money and learning how to provide support for their children. As of December 1, our chapter of 25 members has spent over 60 hours on this project.
The results will be multiple. These women will be given an opportunity to start again, the community will benefit when these women can now purchase a car, or put a deposit down on an apartment, and we have really realized how it feels to be homeless and that our efforts will help these residents build a new and more secure future. Our final hope is that our efforts will encourage all members of our chapter to continue community service, more especially with the homeless.