Homeless Find an Out From the Shelter With IRS Refunds

WHEN the taxman cometh, Paul Heimer is that rare American who smiles. He's using the Internal Revenue code to put tax rebates into the hands of homeless people who have earned them.

The program, based in Alexandria, Va., is offered at 25 Washington-area shelters. It needs virtually no funding but produces big payoffs. Over the past two years, Mr. Heimer and two-dozen volunteers have helped about 300 people obtain tax rebates totaling an estimated $180,000.

``If it wasn't for Paul, I would not have known that I could file for my money two years late,'' says Jean, a mother of four, who lived for almost three months at a shelter called Sullivan House.

She now has an apartment, employment, and economic security bolstered by the prospect of a 1994 tax rebate of more than $2,000.

Heimer says Jean's case is not isolated. For some, the rebates provide the means they need to move out of shelters and restart their lives. ``If the refund is big enough,'' he says, ``it's enough to pay a security deposit and the first month's rent.''

Embodying the GOP mantra of doing more with less, Heimer's program seems to justify claims by House Speaker Newt Gingrich that creativity and flexibility can compensate for anticipated public-assistance cutbacks.

``My program helps people only temporarily,'' Heimer notes. ``It puts money in their hands one time. It's not a panacea. It's not a solution.''

But Heimer's program does work to counter one myth about the homeless: That they are mumbling derelicts who sleep on benches.

Residents of Sullivan House, a well-kept, three-story apartment building set amid a sprawl of modest homes, car dealerships, and ethnic fast-food joints, are couples with children, single mothers, and individuals on their own.

They have struggled on the economic edge and, for some reason, tumbled over. Although they have lost their homes, most Sullivan House residents do not stop working as secretaries, clerks, and fry-cooks. That is where Heimer's program comes in.

Heimer came upon the idea of tax rebates for the homeless while manning the front desk at a homeless shelter where he discovered that many residents couldn't read their own names on the sign-in sheet.

He also discovered that shelter residents did not file tax returns because they are often ``ignorant of the law, or for whatever reason, they might have skipped filing for a year and are afraid of the IRS.'' Or because they move so often, residents seldom received W-2 forms.

After offering to do one illiterate man's taxes, the idea caught on. Heimer established a formal program at one Alexandria shelter. And when other shelters showed interest, Heimer expanded his program from 10 shelters the first year, 20 the next, and now 25.

But the money does have some strings attached: Participants must adhere to strictly monitored budgets. Any income, including tax rebates, must be deposited in their savings accounts and spent only according to a budget developed with shelter staff.

``We tell them we are not going to help them if they splurge,'' says Cynthia Wilson, the director of the Arlington-Alexandria Coalition for the Homeless, which runs Sullivan House. She adds: ``In many cases, they are just one paycheck away from being homeless again. When we pull out, [the tax rebate] gives them something to fall back on.''

For Emily Vasquez, the discipline helped her move out of the shelter last year and establish a new home for herself and her three children. With $1,093 from her tax rebates and earned-income credit, Ms. Vasquez says she was able to ``buy pots and pans and things like blankets and pillows and a crib.''

``I'm happy, my kids are happy, I have a place to live and a job,'' says Vasquez, who now works as a receptionist at Sullivan House.

Come this April 15, Heimer says, he expects returns from the program to be up from last year's high of $180,000 - more clients and a boost in the federal earned income tax credit will contribute to the growth.

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