For some taxpayers across the country, tax refunds are seen as a pleasant bonus after tax season. For others, tax refunds offer a crucial lifeline to make ends meet, keep the lights on, and purchase necessities like groceries and clothing.
In San Francisco, United Way Bay Area (UWBA), together with a coalition of community-based non-profit partners, is working to ensure San Franciscans’ access to quality, IRS-supported tax assistance in their own communities.
“We are partnering with organizations that are embedded in their communities, trusted by their communities,” says Kelly Batson, Chief Community Impact Officer at UWBA.
UWBA launched its Free Tax Help program in 2002, and it has since grown to include many community partners and thousands of volunteers across eight Bay Area counties. Batson sees Free Tax Help as part of UWBA’s larger mission to break the cycle of poverty. UWBA also supports organizations and programs that focus on employment and career opportunities, financial stability, housing justice, and meeting basic needs.
Batson says partnerships are key to UWBA’s model and to the Free Tax Help program.
“Every year our partners and our staff and our volunteers are trying to get all the supplies and resources where they need to be to start tax season and a partnership with Waymo has allowed us to deliver those supplies in a way that's way more efficient, really impactful,” Batson says. “We're so grateful that this is helping us scale the program, and meet urgent needs both of the community and our partners.”
Batson says Waymo’s technology offers a powerful option for volunteers to get to tax service sites.
“Autonomous driving cars are a piece of the puzzle in ensuring that folks can thrive and have the resources they need in the Bay Area, and to live here,” Kelly says. “I really see that connection in Free Tax Help because we need our volunteers there, we need taxpayers there to get help.”
Autonomous driving cars are a piece of the puzzle in ensuring that folks can thrive and have the resources they need in the Bay Area, and to live here. I really see that connection in Free Tax Help because we need our volunteers there, we need taxpayers there to get help.
A Volunteer Tax Preparer Rides with Waymo
Dung Tran, a volunteer tax preparer with the Free Tax Help program, uses Waymo to travel to the site where he volunteers: The Women's Building in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District, a predominately Latinx community.
“I have to say Waymo is incredible because it's safe,” says Dung, who has lived in San Francisco for 20 years and has a background in accounting. “Being a driver myself, I know sometimes we swerve around or cut in front of others, but I'm glad that Waymo does not do that. Waymo is just very patient and it actually obeys traffic law.”
While inside the vehicle, Dung was able to interact with the Waymo One app and in-car experience in the Chinese language. Waymo offers both Chinese-language and Spanish-language interfaces, in addition to English. Dung said he believes this feature will be useful to many riders… riders like his mom.
“My mom, she can speak limited English and having a bilingual interface would help her a lot,” says Dung.
Empowering Multiple Generations at The Women’s Building
Inside the Women’s Building, a women-owned and women-led community resource center founded in 1971, Tax Program Coordinator Karina Martinez says she’s witnessed the powerful human impact of the Free Tax Help program.
Karina recalls that the program helped one woman reconnect with her family abroad.
“She got a pretty big return of $3,400,” Karina recalls. “And she was so grateful because she said she's going to be able to visit her family in El Salvador now thanks to the return.”
Daniel Tejada, who has worked as a Tax Specialist at the Women's Building for nearly 10 years, praises volunteers like Dung Tran.
“Volunteers that come to the Women's Building [...] all share one thing in common, which is that kindness of spirit and willingness to give their time and effort week after week during tax season,” says Daniel.
Daniel says he remembers one woman who came to volunteer at the Women’s Building because she and her mother received free tax help when she was a child. She remembered coming in, and wanted to give back as a volunteer.
Daniel says clients sometimes have trouble accessing the Women’s Building’s tax assistance during certain hours because of limited public transit options. But he believes autonomous driving technology like Waymo’s could offer a safe mobility option for the community the Women’s Building serves.
“Anything that can help them arrive here to get their taxes done and get that refund or at least get that out of the way, is definitely a big help,” Daniel emphasizes.
Daniel says Waymo’s language options are also a big help. Spanish and Chinese are San Francisco’s second and third most spoken languages, and the Free Tax Help program serves many Spanish and Chinese speakers.
“We feel that Waymo has such a great value in the fact that it offers the app access in languages other than English, such as Spanish and Chinese,” Daniel says.
Connecting the Community at the Bayview Hunters Point YMCA
Across town at the Bayview Hunters Point YMCA, another UWBA Free Tax Help partner organization, staff and volunteers are gearing up for another season offering assistance to the surrounding Bayview community, a historically low-income community of color.
Demetrius Durham, Associate Executive Director at the Bayview Hunters Point YMCA, is a longtime San Francisco resident and has worked in Bayview for the last 20 years.
“It is important for the community to have access to completing their taxes because they have worked, and they have earned, and they have put in the time to get back what they deserve,” emphasizes Demetrius.
It is important for the community to have access to completing their taxes because they have worked, and they have earned, and they have put in the time to get back what they deserve.
He sees free tax assistance as part of the Bayview Hunters Point YMCA’s comprehensive programming, which includes music and multimedia studios, film and podcast training programs, an IT program, a full commercial kitchen to train young culinary talent, and more.
Demetrius says the Free Tax Help program is incredibly popular.
“On any given Saturday, you will see young people that are 16 and 17 standing in line with their parents, to our senior citizens who are being escorted in by a partner, community organizations, and everybody in between,” Demetrius says.
Free Tax Help Brings Money Back into SF Communities Like Bayview
Last year, the Bayview Hunters Point YMCA helped prepare hundreds of state and federal taxes, and that helped bring tax return money back into the community.
“We had roughly $49,500 in returns that went back to people, and we were able to serve people of all backgrounds, primarily African American, Asian, and people of Latin or Hispanic descent,” Demetrius explains.
However, Demetrius says transportation can be an obstacle to accessing the Free Tax Program.
“We have people that are trying to move around in the Bayview, and people that are trying to move around in San Francisco, and without there being a lot of parking spaces and without having that easy of access to transportation, people need alternatives,” Demetrius explains.
Waymo Partnerships Support San Francisco Nonprofit Missions
Demetrius says partnerships like those with Waymo and UWBA are helping the Bayview Hunters Point YMCA connect the dots for the community it serves.
“When we're talking one day about how can somebody get to a place where they can get their taxes done, and the next day, how can they get to a place where they can take the money that they got from their tax returns and go pay a bill, or go get their medicine, or go get some healthier food, then that's when you start seeing the connections come together,” Demetrius says.
When we're talking one day about how can somebody get to a place where they can get their taxes done, and the next day, how can they get to a place where they can take the money that they got from their tax returns and go pay a bill, or go get their medicine, or go get some healthier food, then that's when you start seeing the connections come together.
Kelly Batson of UWBA says her organization’s partnership with Waymo is part of exploring new ways to address historic barriers.
“For United Way Bay Area, innovation and technology is a key piece to us achieving our mission,” Kelly says. “If we're going to dismantle the root causes of poverty, if we're going to mobilize the Bay Area and build pathways to prosperity, we need all the solutions. Technology and innovation plays a part in that.”