$18 million in tax refunds have been secured through Focus: HOPE service over the last decade

Focus: HOPE, in partnership with the Accounting Aid Society, has secured nearly $18 million in tax return money through free tax preparation services offered to low-income Detroit-area residents since 2004.

The average amount of money returned to Detroit-area households is nearly $2 million per year since 2009. In all nearly 19,000 households have received free tax advisory services from the Accounting Aid Society’s professionals over the last decade at Focus: HOPE. Income tax refunds, including earned income credits, and homestead property tax refunds comprised the largest percentage of refund money secured, but volunteer tax advisors also have uncovered state home heating credits, and more.

The Detroit-based Accounting Aid Society provides free income tax preparation services for low and middle income households in southeast Michigan. Each year, millions of dollars in tax refunds are unclaimed by those who need them the most. Of the 1,969 households that received free tax preparation services at Focus: HOPE in 2014, 1,526 were filed from single parent households.

“We provide a range of services to participants of our food program and our community and this is consistently one of our most popular programs each year. Having visibility within our food center really has helped to drive the numbers up,” said Frank Kubik, director of the Focus: HOPE food program. “We have CPAs and tax preparers who really look out for those families we service in finding every possible refund opportunity.”

The sheer numbers and success of the program ensure that it will continue in the foreseeable future.

“It’s been a wonderful program and I think the impact we’ve had on families and individuals have been significant,” said Marshall Hunt, CPA, director of tax policy & advocacy for the Accounting Aid Society. Hunt has worked with Focus: HOPE since the program’s inception. “Certainly a lot of the attention is on the federal return but there are a lot of state tax credits that the people we have worked with aren’t aware of that have really made a financial difference for them,” he added.

Hunt recalls one example in particular where a veteran who had very little income was afforded two significant tax credits that gave him an unexpected tax return.

“That really stood out to me because this gentleman was so grateful,” Hunt said. “There are a lot of stories like that.”

All tax preparers who work with the Accounting Aid Society are volunteers and must past stringent guidelines to be able to work for the organization, Hunt said. “You really are getting the best of the best tax accountants and CPAs as well as accounting students that donate time to us and those in need in our communities,” he said.

The free tax return preparation is available to any low income families or individuals, but many of those filed through Focus: HOPE is for participants in the food program. The volunteers work in the Westside Food Center on Oakman Boulevard where many senior citizens and families pick up food. Focus: HOPE provides food for 39,000 senior citizens and 3,000 mothers with young children each month through the Commodity Supplemental Food Program. Since 1971, Focus: HOPE has assisted more than 22.7 million people by providing commodity foods that are equivalent to an excess of 524 million meals.

Other special programs are available to individuals and families through the Food Program, including health screenings, free flu shots and eye examinations. DTE Energy has also set up an office at the Westside Food Center to help people receive assistance before their heat is shut off.

“We try to ensure that our program is providing more than just food,” Kubik said. “It’s one of the things that sets us apart and makes us the most relied upon program of its kind in Metro Detroit.”

"The average amount of money returned to Detroit-area households is nearly $2 million per year since 2009."