HARLEM — Stella Crook lined up just after 8 a.m. to get free tax services at Saint Nicholas Avenue and 114th Street. By the time the center opened at 10 a.m., the line was out the door.
"I was the first one here, they even let me wait inside," said Crook, 68. "I was in and out, it was so easy."
The retired home health aide used to pay $300 at Jackson Hewitt to file but she began using the free service two years ago.
Now she keeps her refund without paying a dime for help filing paperwork.
“They charge you $300 to give you your own money,” said German Tejeda, who runs the program. “When that money runs out you are going to want those $300. That’s someone’s grocery bill.”
The average income of clients using the free service is $17,000. Anyone who makes less than $54,000 and can claim dependents or makes less than $30,000 and is a single filer is eligible to receive free tax assistance, he added.
IRS-certified volunteers are trained to get eligible tax payers claim the Earn Income Tax Credit, which is a poverty-reduction program that helped more than 4.8 million people get and average of $2,000.
The Food Bank has been running a tax program since 2002. They have 20 centers throughout the five boroughs and dozens of drop off centers where you can submit paperwork and file with your cellphone.
In their 14 years of providing this service they have put more than $900 million back into people’s pockets, they said.
“This year we are going to reach $1 billion,” Tejeda said.
The center in Harlem — one of four in Manhattan — has been open for three years. They partner with non-profits throughout the city to open other centers in all five boroughs and have also teamed up with Intuit to offer free digital assistance at selected libraries including Harlem Library, Morningside Heights, and 58th Street.
To file, people should bring a picture ID, social security card, and copies of income forms like a W-2, 1099, or records of other types of income like cash earnings. A full list of documents is available online.
Ever since learning about the Food Bank’s program, Crook has no plans to pay for tax assistance. She has even recruited people to the program.
“This is a great service,” she said. “My daughter is using it now.”