Canada Revenue Agency’s ethnography of homeless citizens’ access to tax filing

Yes, you read that right. The CRA has carried out an ethnographic study to better understand barriers to income tax filing among those who experience homelessness and insecure housing. Thanks to Christine Pinsent-Johnson for drawing my attention to this fascinating research!

The CRA study began with the premise that homeless citizens may be foregoing crucial access to income and benefits due to barriers they experience filing their taxes. Researchers interviewed 50 people in shelters and social service agencies about their tax filing experiences. The honesty and insight in this study refreshing. Among the barriers that people described (and that many frontline service workers and homeless citizens will recognize):

  1. Government communication cultures can be intimidating. (see section 5.33, para. 1)

“CRA communication, whether online, over the phone, or by mail, can pose a barrier to some homeless and housing-insecure individuals who may struggle to understand the CRA’s technical communication style, or to write or speak in a manner that is comprehensible and acceptable to the CRA.” (para. 20)

2. It’s hard to keep track of documents and remember previous addresses when one is constantly on the move. (see section 5.3.2, para. 10).

“A related barrier is the challenge of obtaining and storing the documents that are required to file one’s taxes and to verify one’s identity while living in a temporary or emergency residence. In situations where a person’s address is not stable or changes frequently, individuals may have difficulty acquiring their Notice of Assessment, slips from employment and social assistance, and other documents required for tax filing.” (para. 25)

3. It’s sometimes difficult to verify one’s identity in ways that are recognized by CRA.  (see section 5.3.1, para. 1).

“When an individual needs to access their information from the CRA or to ask a tax-related question, and if they cannot or do not want to access this information online, their only option is to phone the CRA’s call centre. However, the requirement to confirm one’s identity by answering security questions posed by call centre agents can create a significant barrier for homeless or housing-insecure individuals. Before call centre agents are able to discuss confidential matters, they must ask individuals over the phone to confirm their identity by providing personal details, which the agent verifies against the CRA’s records.  However, in many cases a person’s complex set of circumstances prevents them from easily answering these identifying questions.”

4. People experience technology and digital access barriers. (see section 5.3.4, para. 1)

“Like many other federal government organizations, the CRA has in recent years expanded its online services and encouraged users to take up those services. This includes a shift to online tax filing, the introduction of an online platform for managing tax affairs and receiving correspondence from the CRA, and a transition to online forms of communication and service delivery. While these changes have been largely successful in simplifying the way that many Canadians interact with the CRA, for others this shift has created new barriers to accessing information and benefits.”

I think it’s exciting to see government agencies using the fine-grained lenses of ethnographic research to understand how their services and technologies are actually experienced by marginalized citizens. I look forward to following how this enlightened approach helps CRA (and maybe other government services) design their services to better meet the needs of the growing number of Canadians who experience precarious housing.

This short, well written and compelling study is well worth the read!





Literacy and learning for homeless citizens

Homelessness and precarious housing is on the rise in Canada and in many affluent countries. 235,000 Canadians were homeless in 2016, and on any given night as many as 35,000 people are without a secure place to sleep. This raises the issue of how the literacy and learning needs of this large constituency of Canadians are being met.

A post by researcher Katy Jones, at the Literacy Research Centre at Lancaster University in the UK, shares the findings of her doctoral study on how community agencies meet the literacy and learning needs of homeless citizens. She finds that there are all kinds of informal and formal strategies agencies adopt, including providing opportunities for volunteering in agencies, one-to-one mentoring, small group informal learning around issues of interest, literacy classes embedded in services. But she also found that these initiatives are enacted on-the-fly and are not supported with the funding, policies and infrastructure required to respond to a ‘new normal’ of housing precarity. Her findings resonate with what the experiences of many literacy educators in BC:

Whilst there are some great examples of educational provision in the homelessness sector, in most instances it exists on a precarious footing. Learning opportunities are often short-term and ad hoc. In the absence of long-term funding, provision is often dependent on the time, skills and expertise of volunteers, or the availability of outreach from local colleges and training providers. Interviewees explained that a reliance on volunteer support could undermine the consistency of provision.

Digital literacy, digital equity and housing precarity in Vancouver

LinkVan is a digital equity project led by the Downtown Eastside Literacy Roundtable and the UBC Learning Exchange. LinkVan is a local, literacy-friendly online service directory designed to respond to the service needs and contexts of community members in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. With doctoral students Sherry Breshears and Matthias Sturm I have been researching how people use the LinkVan site, and their experiences of Vancouver’s digital landscape. We have learned that social, income and digital inequality are entangled. People who are homeless or or on-the-edge-of homelessness experience particular literacy, learning and digital access needs. The LinkVan project responds to this by offering digital literacy outreach in local parks, shelters, housing associations, drop in and community settings. Local libraries and learning centres at Vancouver Community College, the Women’s Information and Safe House (WISH) and the Carnegie Learning Centre and the UBC Learning Exchange, all  strive to meet the learning needs of homeless citizens. This work is vital, but there is a need for policy and technology design at the municipal and provincial levels (including the design of online information, services, learning spaces and devices) that intentionally responds to the digital access needs of the most vulnerable citizens in this precarious city. These issues were discussed at a recent Community Technology Forum at the UBC Learning Exchange where we presented vignettes from our research that speak to the digital access experiences of homeless and precariously housed citizens of the DTES. These address safety and security of devices and people; the relationship between online information about services and the actual services; how people improvise to access digital technologies and the ideas people have to improve access to digital learning and technologies. You can read these vignettes here:

Vignette One no information is better than inaccurate information

Vignette Two March 21 It’s like you’re off the grid

Vignette Three Nicole because not everyone has a phone

Vignette Four- what if ?