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From filling plates to filing taxes: St. Vincent de Paul 's mission of financial empowerment

22 November 2023
Author: Anitha Thillainathan
In the heart of Bowmanville, Ontario, the St. Vincent de Paul Food Bank stands as a beacon of hope for the community. The food bank helps community members in need, having served 3,200 clients in 2022 and continuing to support 120-150 families each month in 2023. Last year, 36 per cent of their clients were new and were graciously assisted by volunteers who dedicated over 5,000 hours to the cause. The influx of new clients and the hours served by volunteers stands as a testament to the changing times we live in, marked by food insecurity and housing crises that have taken a toll on low-income individuals, sometimes leaving them homeless. St. Vincent de Paul and similar organizations offer support and assistance for those who are struggling.  

In this blog post, we delve into the inspiring story shared by Marian Cook, one of the volunteers at St. Vincent de Paul, about the transformative power of knowledge and collaboration.  

A network of support 

Through community of practice (CoP) meetings that included various partners, including Prosper Canada, Marian witnessed firsthand the impact of a collaborative network in making a remarkable difference in the life of a struggling single mother. In facilitating a CoP, Prosper Canada provides a virtual space for frontline staff, managers, and volunteers from 15 Financial Empowerment Champions (FECs) and other financial empowerment leaders across Canada. The CoP fosters discussions, resource sharing, and best practices through virtual meetups, creating a platform for advocacy and support. Some of the topics covered in these meetings include discussions on the barriers and solutions to the disability benefits application and tax filing processes, innovations and challenges for tax clinics supporting newcomers to access government benefits, and debt solutions. 

The St. Vincent de Paul Food Bank has always been more than just a place to access essential groceries; it's a community that cares. Most volunteers are homeowners and retirees who faced the new challenge of helping clients navigate their increasingly complex financial situations. Despite their level of expertise when it comes to tax filing, last winter volunteers were doing as much as they could to promote the local free tax clinic for their low-income clients. 

Overcoming fear and uncertainty 

Marian's testimonial unfolds when she was notified by another volunteer of an encounter with a mother picking up groceries. This chance meeting brought to light the dire financial situation of the young mother and Marian was requested to speak to her regarding her situation. The fear of homelessness had paralyzed the young mother, preventing her from seeking the assistance she desperately needed. Adding to her plight was a substantial debt to the local municipality for back property taxes, with the belief that filing federal and provincial tax returns could trigger eviction. Marian and her fellow volunteers found themselves at an impasse, realizing none were qualified to provide the reassurance this young woman needed. It was at this point they turned to a collaborative network for guidance. 

Knowledge and confidence: The catalyst for change 
 
Through this network, a CRA official provided essential information that reassured and alleviated the young women's fears. She learned that the worst-case scenario, in the event the municipality decided to pursue her debt further, was a lien on the deeds to her house. This meant that the back taxes with interest would only be collected when she chose to sell her house or if a mortgage holder forced the sale.  

With this newfound knowledge, the young mother filed several years' worth of back taxes, revealing the extent of the credits and money she was owed. The outcome was nothing short of extraordinary. She managed to pay off a significant portion of her debts and negotiated a new mortgage arrangement that resolved her property tax debt. Although she is still struggling with a low income, she has gained a newfound sense of confidence and control over her life. 

Continuing challenges and evolving solutions 

Marian highlights the changing landscape of the clients at the St. Vincent de Paul Food Bank. They now serve not only the unemployed, retired, and disabled but also individuals who are working full-time, struggling homeowners grappling with substantial debts and interest rates, and even those facing homelessness. The complexities of their situations require tailored solutions and information, and collaboration with partners has played a crucial role in providing resources and knowledge. Given the changing times, she encourages organizations like Prosper Canada to add information about debts on property taxes and how to negotiate them for those struggling.  

Marian Cook’s powerful testimony is a reminder of the incredible impact that collaborative efforts can have on entire communities. Her story highlights the transformative power of knowledge and support. Let us remember that when we work together towards a common goal, we can achieve incredible change and make a positive difference in the lives of others. With the help of various partners, we can continue to uplift those in need and create a brighter future for our communities. 

THE AUTHOR

Anitha Thillainathan is a Senior Officer, Marketing and Communications at Prosper Canada.

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