Four times a year, PO Box 21021 at the Canada Post office at London Drugs in Duncan is crammed full with light-brown envelopes. Inside those envelopes are quarterly GST credit payments for about 100 people experiencing homelessness in the Cowichan Valley. Clara Rempel has the only key.
Rempel prepares taxes for a living. She makes an effort to bring her services to people without a fixed address. Without asking them to pay up front, she helps them get money that they are eligible to receive from the government.
In doing this work, Rempel has an inside view of a growing crisis in affordable housing in the Cowichan Valley. The majority of her tax clients have homes, though some have lost them in the past few years, she says. The housing crisis has hit her personally, too.
The benefit to her homeless clients, Rempel says, is more than a bit of money every three months. She helps provide moments of normalcy in lives often consumed by crisis and chaos. She offers kindness and compassion to people who often see little. For some, it’s a lifeline. And, occasionally, it’s a pathway to housing and stability.
Doing it for “uy shqwaluwun“
“The only reason I do taxes for the homeless is for uy shqwaluwun,” Rempel says, using the Hul’qumi’num term for “good feelings.” She adds, “If people get what they need, they’ve got good feelings.” Rempel says she feels very connected to the Cowichan Tribes community. She estimates that more than half of her clients are Indigenous.
Rempel says she still suffers from PTSD from an abusive childhood that she describes as “hell.” The experience of not receiving help when she desperately needed it as a young girl drives her desire to help people who aren’t being helped, she says. “And the homeless really stand out as not being helped.”
About 10 years ago, Rempel helped a close friend and his family move their stuff after they lost their housing. Because the family had dogs, their young adult sons ended up living in the bush in Clara’s camping tent, and she says she used to bring them dog food. Then, in 2012, she attended a screening of Broken Down, Harold Joe’s documentary depicting homelessness in Cowichan and Vancouver.
Rempel says the film made her aware of how huge the homeless problem was then. She is alarmed by how much the situation has worsened over the past eight years.
“In this community, I see too much hardship and it just makes me want to cry. And, other than crying, to do something about it. I’m really thankful that I can do taxes, and I love doing taxes,” Rempel says.
A mobile tax unit
People notice when Rempel’s silver Honda CRV pulls up outside the Warmland House shelter on Lewis Street. It’s a scene I’ve witnessed several times over the past few weeks. Rempel opens her door or rolls down the window and remains in the front seat as people approach and ask if she has anything for them. Rempel thumbs through a large stack of envelopes to see if she does. Some people stay to fill out tax forms, others check on the status of filings, and some seem just to want to chat. Rempel also asks around for the whereabouts of people she has mail or updates for.
Rempel calls herself “a mobile unit.” She goes to where her clients are, and a lot of her tax work happens inside her vehicle. She also keeps, upon request, the tax assessments of clients who have no place to safely store documents.
Rempel says she has built her homeless clientele primarily through word of mouth at the shelters and food bank. She also approaches people living on the streets and asks if they want their taxes done and if they know whether they’re entitled to refund money from the government. Often they don’t know, and Rempel will offer to check.
“The word just has gotten out, big time: ‘Clara does taxes for us.’ And they’re really happy about it,” she says. “They tell each other what I’m about, that I have no judgements on anybody. What they choose to do personally is their choice, and I respect their anonymity.”
“We all want to belong somewhere”
Rempel is building trust among people where trust doesn’t come easy. That’s clear to me — in the course of my reporting on homelessness in Duncan, no one has connected me more to people living on the streets than she has. They trust her. Rempel tells them that their voices should be heard. She wants people to know them like she does.
Not everyone she introduces me to wants to talk. But some are willing to open up to a journalist, just on Rempel’s referral. One of them is Tiann Green, a 32-year-old woman who grew up in Crofton. She walks with me over to McDonald’s where she tells me about her heroin addiction and the challenges she experiences since becoming homeless a year and a half ago. Midway through our conversation, Rempel joins us at our booth.
“We all want to belong somewhere,” Rempel chimes in. At this, Green tears up. Rempel puts an arm around her.
Rempel tells me later that she considers people living on the streets to be her family. “Who else in our society is in crisis 24/7?,” she asks. “They’re dehydrated and exhausted. They don’t have a place to lie down, go to the bathroom, wash their hands. I really feel for them.”
An extension cord can be a lifeline
Rempel understands people experiencing homelessness and addiction in part because she’s been there. She is a recovering alcoholic (sober, she says, since September, 1993) and has also felt the squeeze of Cowichan’s crushing rental market.
It happened in 2018, when Rempel couldn’t find an apartment to rent when she needed one. She lived out of her car for two months, she says, in between stints at a couple of local motels, which depleted her savings.
During the day, she would power up her computer at the Shell gas station in Duncan. Staff permitted her to run a long extension cord from her car to an outside outlet. She would sit there for several hours, doing taxes.
In the evenings, she would park on quiet streets and sleep reclining in the front seat of the CRV. This caused swelling in her feet and lower legs, she recalls. One night, in a neighbourhood where she had previously lived for several years, she was awakened at 3 a.m by a man rapping on her window. He told her that she had to leave his neighbourhood, and that if she wanted to sleep in her car, she needed to go downtown, Rempel says.
“That would be a death sentence for me; I can’t handle all that excitement,” says Rempel. A few months later, she rented a 1977 Scamper RV that is parked at a local property.
“The loophole princess”
Rempel calls herself “the loophole princess.” She says she loves finding ways to get money for her clients, or at least get them out of debt. She explains that clearing up debt allows people to have their bank accounts unfrozen and makes them eligible for GST tax credits.
She feels strongly about making her services accessible to everyone in the community. This is why, Rempel says, she rarely charges her fee up front. Instead, she gets her fees after her clients have received a refund.
Rempel charges $20 to electronically file annual tax returns, $100 for applications for retroactive premium assistance from B.C.’s Medical Services Plan and $100 for applications for Canada’s Guaranteed Income Supplement for pensioners. Among her other services, she does filings and makes court appearances for clients dealing with the Family Maintenance Enforcement Program, but these cases often end up being pro bono because they usually don’t involve a refund, she says.
“I have to charge something. Although I do end up doing it free for quite a few people anyway,” she says. Sometimes this is her choice, but it can also be hard or unsafe to track down clients who have promised to pay, she says. People have suggested she find someone to help collect what she is owed. But she dismisses the idea. She explains, “Somebody has got to trust somebody somewhere along the line.”
Getting back into the rhythm
Rempel’s services come judgement-free. She doesn’t tell people how to spend their money, but encourages them to take care of themselves. Sometimes with clients who “appear out of it,” she says she will advise them to use their refund money wisely and ask them if they have a safety plan. If they want it, she will give them information about how to seek treatment.
Occasionally, Rempel is able to correct a mistake or get refunds going back several years, which can provide a client with a windfall of more than $1,000. This can make a big difference. For some few clients, it has meant moving to more stable housing and rebuilding their lives, she says.
Most commonly, her clients receive quarterly cheques for $111.12 for their GST refund and climate action tax credit. Rempel says that these refunds allow people to buy little normal things such as a meal out or diapers. But she says that even more valuable than the money is the rhythm of receiving quarterly cheques.
“It makes them feel part of the community that way,” she says. “It gives them a sense of hope. And that’s what I want to give to them more than anything, is that there is hope.”
“An unsung hero”
To Myra Antoniuk, an outreach worker with the Hiiye’yu Lelum (House of Friendship) Society, Rempel is “an unsung hero.”
Antoniuk tells me how Rempel cleared up a messy tax situation for her adult son, whom she says has a drug addiction and lives on the streets of Duncan. Canada Revenue Agency claimed that her son owed a substantial sum of money based on earnings that he actually hadn’t collected, she says. It took Rempel a couple of months to sort things out, and then her son even got some money back, Antoniuk recalls.
“It was a huge relief. … He was overwhelmed, stressed — and then Clara came along,” Antoniuk says. “She approaches everybody with so much compassion. Everyone feels welcome in her presence. She goes where a lot of people won’t go, she picks up a lot of people that people won’t talk to, and she helps them out.”
Never going to stop
The way homeless people are treated really bothers her, Rempel says. “Trying to make people go away and shuffling them around is not going to help.”
According to Rempel, people and institutions need to develop a “social conscience.”
“Social conscience, to me, is giving consideration to absolutely everyone, and that includes the animals, the plants, people, and spirits, the rocks, everything. … And that’s sure not happening a lot these days. How on Earth could the government or any powers-that-be let the housing situation get so out of hand?”
Rempel tells me that she plans to keep doing taxes for the homeless for as long as she can draw a breath. She says she will never raise her fee above $20 for doing a simple income tax.
“My motivation is to give them hope,” she says. “I’m only one part of the hope. There needs to be a lot more parts.”