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The Southwest Michigan Community Action Agency (SMCAA) is asking for your input to help it do an even better job of fighting poverty in the region.  Since 1982, SMCAA has served Southwest Michigan with programs dedicated to helping end the cycle of poverty for those in its service area.

SMCAA explained the process in a statement:

As an agency operating under the national Community Action Agency umbrella, SMCAA is required to conduct a survey every three years as a part of maintaining eligibility for Community Services Block Grant federal funding. The Community Needs Assessment (CNA) will be available to the public for three months.  After which, SMCAA will analyze the results and data accumulated within a comprehensive publicly available report.

This information is vital to the organization, as it not only helps ensure continued funding, but it shapes SMCAA’s strategic planning, programs, development, funding allocations, and more. The collected information is used to assist SMCAA in determining the underlying causes and conditions of local poverty, identifying vulnerable or underserved demographics, and noting gaps in programmatic coverage.

The wider the reach of the CNA, the better the understanding of the needs of the community, and the more impact it will have on SMCAA’s future endeavors and goals. All residents of Berrien, Cass, or Van Buren counties are asked to participate in this survey.  Public input is greatly appreciated by SMCAA, and will help shape the future of Southwest Michigan.

The survey takes an average of five minutes, and the answers and opinions provided go far in continuing SMCAA’s work of empowering diverse people in need.

The Community Needs Survey can currently be accessed on SMCAA’s website –  – as a pop-up option, or under the Get Involved tab. It’s also available on the SMCAA Facebook page.

United Way of Southwest Michigan offering "Volunteer Tax Income Assistance" to qualifying individuals

The tax preparation service is free to residents making $60,000 or less and need assistance in preparing their tax returns. You must make an appointment and VITA will begin taking appointments on January 23.

Contact and details of what’s needed at an appointment listed below. VITA organizers say their services are by appointment only — no walk-in visits.

Berrien & Cass counties:

By appointment ONLY for all qualifying residents of Berrien and Cass counties. VITA will begin taking appointments for these counties starting January 23. VITA will offer tax preparation in locations in Benton Harbor, Niles, Cassopolis, and Dowagiac. The address for the location will be given when making the appointment. Clients must remain at the location during tax preparation—no drop-offs.

To make an appointment, call 269.934.3717.

Van Buren County:

By appointment ONLY for all qualifying residents of Van Buren County.

• South Haven – VITA will begin taking appointments for this location starting January 15. Appointments at Senior Services, 8337 M-140 Street, will be held on Wednesdays only from February 7 to March 20. To make an appointment, call 269.468.9410. Hours to call 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.

• Paw Paw – VITA will begin to take appointments for this location starting January 23. The address for the location will be given when making the appointment. Drop-off only, return in two weeks to review and pick up. Drop-offs will be Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1-6 p.m. February 1 to March 28. No walk-ins this year. To make an appointment, call 269.934.3717.

All Appointments — WHAT TO BRING:

• Valid picture ID, such as Drivers License, Michigan State ID, Military.
• A copy of last year’s tax return (2022), if you have one.
• Social Security cards for ALL persons listed on the return.
• W-2 and/or 1099 forms from all 2023 jobs.
• 1099-G form, if you or anyone in your household received unemployment Insurance benefits at any time in 2023.
• 1099-INT form, if you received bank interest income in 2023.
• Any statements received from a mortgage company during 2023 or name and address of landlord and amount of rent paid.
• Property tax receipts or bills for taxes paid in 2023.
• IRS notices or letters sent to you or someone in your household during 2023.
• Heating bills from 11/01/22–10/31/23 or contact your utility provider for your 2023 allowable heat credit deduction.
• If you have an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITINs), please bring your ITIN card that was sent to you from the IRS.
• You will need a Social Security number in order to claim the Child Tax Credit.
• Routing number and account number from your bank for your refund to be directly and quickly deposited. You may still receive a paper check.
• If you have received assistance from Department of Health & Human Services in 2023, bring your annual statement.
• Receipts for childcare expenses, including provider’s name, address, and EIN/Social Security number.
• Invoices and/or receipts for residential energy credit.
• Healthy Michigan Marketplace Insurance Information Form 1095-A for 2023.
• If married filing jointly, both spouses must sign the intake form.

SMCAA Programs: Homebuyer Education

​I would like to take an opportunity to share my story that I believe many Americans will be able to empathize with. For myself Home Ownership always seemed out of my reach. For many years I was struggling to escape the "Rental Trap" moving from place to place paying thousands of dollars after many years and having nothing but memories to show for my efforts. As a high school honor student and a holder of an associate's degree I thought I had the necessary knowledge to be prepared to be successful in the world.

Unfortunately, I did not have the knowledge or education to prepare myself for the upcoming financial challenges or credit barriers necessary to position myself for home ownership. At the age of 38 I found myself exhausted from renting from landlord after landlord and decided to get serious about educating myself towards home ownership. I got serious about monitoring my credit and began to explore what programs may be available to help someone such as myself reach their dream.

I was fortunate enough to have a conversation with a loan originator from a local bank who gave me advice on my credit issues and talked about a program that may be able to help me get closer to Home Ownership. I began to explore online and I was eventually led to the Southwest Michigan Community Action Agency (SMCAA). I learned that I could take classes to prepare me for home ownership and potentially receive down payment assistance to purchase my dream home.

I was once again blessed to have the opportunity to meet Kim who conducted the course I attended. She invited bank representatives and a realtor as guest speakers to discuss the challenges we were all facing. I believe some may neglect how challenging home ownership can actually be unless you are fortunate enough to be in an ideal situation. When faced with adversity, without the necessary education, making the decision that will lead us to our ultimate goal can seem impossible at times.

As I mentioned earlier I was 38 years old before I decided to change my financial path. I had personally felt that I had reached rock bottom. I found myself divorced, my credit score in the dumps, living with my parents and everything I owned fit into one laundry basket. With the support and assistance from Kim I have the keys in my hands for my dream home. In two years' time I have managed to achieve a lifelong dream that would not be possible without the help I received. Every day I give thanks for the blessings that I have received and the opportunities that I have had to endure. One day my story may actually help another. To give someone hope that when things seem impossible that it can still be a reality.

It is my hope that programs such as the one that has helped me continue to be offered to those truly in need of that extra nudge to get them on the correct path. That little guidance to show the light when goals seem so out of reach. The reward, I believe, is one worth the cost.

This client was asked if he would like to represent the consumer sector on SMCAA's Board of Directors to which he accepted. He has served on the Board since 2013.

“I feel everything was done that needed to be done. I had a person who cared and did everything possible. I had the best service.”

“[SMCAA staff member] has been wonderful in and throughout the weatherization process. She has been a pleasure to work with and her attitude is amazing.”

“Everything was great -- I liked how [SMCAA staff member] made sure to explain to me how SMCAA works.”

“Very happy with the help received. I appreciate proactiveness – [SMCAA staff member] called me a couple of times to advise on help available.”

“I am so impressed with the services I received. [SMCAA staff member] was so welcoming. I feel bad asking for help, so it is nice to not feel judged.”

A SMCAA staff member was working with a client in Van Buren County to assist her with her electric bill. During the application process, SMCAA noticed the client's Social Security was very low. The intake worker asked the client if she had ever applied for SSI as she was eligible. The client responded that no one had ever mentioned SSI to her.

A few weeks later the client called SMCAA to thank the staff member for the advice to apply for SSI. She is now receiving SSI and can pay her monthly rent expense without asking her daughter for help. The client said how much she appreciates SMCAA and all the help she gets, as she is also in the CSFP senior commodity program.

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