Jon Kempf was somewhere between living on the margins and living off the grid.
The 61-year-old had been staying at the Lookout Society’s North Shore shelter. He’d kicked a cocaine addiction and was eager to get a foothold on life again but had little more than a dollar to his name.
He was entitled to certain government benefits but with 10 years of unfiled tax returns, he wasn’t eligible to apply.
The shelter referred him to North Shore Neighbourhood House’s volunteer tax clinic, an annual service offered to seniors, students, newcomers and low-income people. The program’s co-ordinator approached longtime volunteer and chartered professional accountant Guy Heywood, seeing if he’d be willing to take on a client whose needs were beyond the normal scope.
“He showed up with his box of T4s. I balked at first and then I thought, well, this could be fun. It took me a Saturday morning to fill them all out,” Heywood said.
After Heywood and filed the papers, he told Kempf to expect a refund of about $300, once his back taxes and MSP premiums were covered.
While he waited, Kempf got trained up to be a traffic flagger and is now working long hours, making a living wage.
But when the cheque arrived in August, the amount it was made out for was larger. Much larger.
“$4,069.13 – I’ve still got the number branded in my head,” Kempf said. “Nobody was more flattened than me.”
With the money, he paid off his debts, bought some new clothes and a little Honda, which he now uses to get to traffic flagging jobs all around the Lower Mainland.
Previously he’d take transit, sometimes for up to six hours a day.
“I call it my freedom machine,” he said.
Heywood said he often wonders how many more people could be getting their lives turned around if only they had the wherewithal to deal with Revenue Canada at tax time.
“That was the case with Jon. He had a lot of money tied up with them that he had no idea about,” he said.
It’s frustrating, Heywood added, because the CRA already has all the information needed to process about one-third of all Canadians’ returns.
“For most poor people, including Jon, everything that’s needed to do their taxes, the government already has because it’s on a T-slip somewhere. It’s only where you have income outside of a T-slip that you really have to prepare a tax return,” he said.
Volunteer co-ordinator Amal Hasan is now looking to recruit more volunteers who can help with the next batch of tax returns coming in 2018.
Heywood said he’ll be back at the clinic this year and he’s encouraging others to sign up and join him.
“I got to help out about 80 people (this year.) The most efficient of us probably did 100. There might have been one or two that were difficult, but for most people, the feeling of being able to do something and the gratitude you get for it is wonderful,” he said.
Hasan said while Kempf’s results may not be typical, the feeling of accomplishment is.
“To me it’s an excellent way to spend time. Do something good. Make some people happy and get that reward of giving. You actually see results. The people are happy and their taxes are done. And of course, they’re happiest when they get money back,” she said.
No accounting experience is necessary but volunteers must go through online training and shadow an experienced volunteer.
Kempf now credits Heywood and the North Shore Neighbourhood House’s tax clinic for getting him back on his feet.
“No man is an island. …Guy had so much to do with it. He was so kind and gave advice. It opened up my self-esteem and gave me a feeling of accomplishment to file my income taxes. It just changed my life,” he said. “God bless his golden heart.”
People wanting some tax help can contact Neighbourhood House by phone at 604-987-8138 and must get booked in advance.
To enquire about volunteering at the tax clinic, email Hasan at firstname.lastname@example.org.