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Tax returns used as unlikely weapon in fighting homelessness

Matthew Albert, a homeless man in Vancouver, in 2009. With assistance, some homeless people who have been living disorganized lives are able to get GST and HST rebates.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

It wasn't part of Joyce Lissimore's original game plan to help solve homelessness through the power of tax returns.

But that was an unintended consequence when the 69-year-old retired teacher decided to start helping people with their taxes three years ago as part of her volunteer work at Trinity United Church in Port Coquitlam.

"A lot of people have been able to get enough money for the first and last month's rent that they couldn't before," said Ms. Lissimore, who started working with Trinity nine years ago on its food-bank program, then became an outreach co-ordinator, and then started doing tax returns.

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She had 23 people contact her after her first year to say they'd been able to get housing as a result of the refunds she got for them. She guesses the number could be up to 40 by this year.

The Tri-Cities, of which Port Coquitlam is a part, saw homelessness drop by almost half between 2008 and 2011 – far more than anywhere else in the region except Vancouver, where the province and city are spending millions on shelters and buying or building housing for people on the street.

The number of people living outside in the Tri-Cities went to 27 from 76 in the same period and the local emergency shelter program has had at least some empty mats every night this winter so far.

Ms. Lissimore did 300 tax returns last year and expects to do about the same or more this year. Most of those returns do little more than ensure that a lot of low-income people get their HST rebate.

But for some, who have been living disorganized and occasionally homeless lives for longer, she gets much more: as much as five years of GST and HST rebates (the maximum) and tax refunds from many more years for people who once worked.

"Sometimes, I've gone back as far as 14 years," said Ms. Lissimore, who works out of the church most of the time using her laptop to record information and file returns.

She's helped out by a couple of other agencies: Revenue Canada and another non-profit program.

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Canada's friendly tax agency has supplied her with forms and manuals going back to the 1990s, so she can file old returns properly.

"The income-tax people have been wonderful," she said.

And the Hope for Freedom program at Grace Gospel Church helps people get their papers together for Ms. Lissimore.

"We let them use our address at the church for paperwork and cheques," said outreach worker Lisa Batista. "And we'll write letters if they're not able to request their tax assessments."

The little tax-return windfall doesn't always mean a happy ending. Some people use it to fuel their addictions.

But, Ms. Batista said, the returns do help another group – those who teeter on the edge of homelessness because they're living precariously on the $610-a-month welfare allowance.

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The small amount of extra money gives them a cushion for food and other things.

Of course, Ms. Lissimore says the biggest beneficiary is herself.

"What it's done for me is that my life makes a difference."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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