The IRS VITA tax program offers free consultations for low-income famlies.
With tax season underway, the IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program is serving low-income city residents. The program offers free tax preparation to families earning less than $49,000 annually and individuals earning less than $20,000. For its second year, Temple’s Center for Social Policy and Community Development is hosting the service on Main Campus.
“This is part of our responsibility to build a bridge to the community,” Interim Director for the Center Shirley Moy said.
The Campaign for Working Families, a Philadelphia financial assistance group, organizes sites for VITA. The campaign operates within the offices of the Urban Affairs Coalition.
Through April 18, VITA offers tax help in Ritter Annex on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, from 5:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., and Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. On weekdays, volunteers see an average of 25 to 30 clients, and 60 to 75 clients on weekends.
“Capacity is always busy by February,” Mildred Chavarria, the assistant director for the campaign, said.
In 2009, volunteers donated 1,256 hours at the Main Campus site. That same year, 100 Temple students volunteered at sites around the city, with 31 working at Ritter.
Tuttleman Learning Center also holds training sessions for volunteers. In 2009, a recorded 902 returns were filed and $1,540,454 in tax refunds was found. Statistics for 2010 have yet to be released.
“Tax law is so confusing,” said Ashley Rivera, a volunteer and Temple law student. “It’s always changing. It’s worth it to not have to keep up on that kind of stuff.”
Rivera first became involved with the program while taking a class at Washington State University. This is her fourth year with the program and her first year working with the campaign.
A client will usually spend between 30 minutes and an hour with a volunteer.
“It really depends on the complexity of the returns,” Rivera said. “Some have just a W-2, and no kids. If they have a mortgage, if they have itemizing, medical expenses, work-related expenses, it can be an hour. With more preps you get comfortable with more documents.”
The sessions follow a first come, first serve system, but many clients say the efficiency improved since last year.
“They were good to me last year [and] they were good to me this year,” client Raychelle Anderson, who returned for a second year at Temple. “Last year was a little longer, but it was worth it. They definitely got faster, and there are more people helping.”
Temple students take advantage of the program to prepare their own taxes. Shakita Speaks, a 2010 alumna, returned to the Temple site for a second year. Before, she went to a site on Spring Garden Street that has since closed.
“It’s free. It’s fast,” Speaks said. “I work from 10 to 6:30, so I can’t come during the week, but Saturday’s perfect for me.”
Speaks has a degree in psychology and religion. She works with the nonprofit group Communities and Schools of Philadelphia.
Along with the Temple site, VITA holds sessions in Center City, Germantown, Northeast Philly, Port Richmond and Kensington, South Philly, Southwest Philly and West Philly.
“Since people know the tax site is there, that’ll generate more traffic,” Michele Slayton, a volunteer organizer, said.
Slayton added that bad weather may have been a deterrent for clients last year.
The campaign works to publicize the program by contacting media outlets, mailing flyers, and sometimes hiring individuals to speak at community meetings and various organizations.
Megan Kiesel, the director of impact and outreach for the campaign, said 50 to 60 percent of the clientele is generated by word of mouth.
Anderson heard about the free service through her daughter, a Temple student.
“Temple Law has given us a lot of help. The professors are advocates for us, and they get their students involved,” Kiesel said.
A challenge in drawing people to the site is reassuring them of the program’s value.
“It’s very personal information that’s involved in a tax return. You don’t wanna just go up to a stranger and hand that information over,” Rivera said. “With this kind of service, I feel like people are a little bit wary. I just try to reassure them it’s legit, and it’s safe, and you don’t have to worry about those kinds of things.”
Amelia Brust can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.