With prices rising on everything from food to gas to housing, we asked our friends at United Way Suncoast (UWS) how we could offer support to those feeling the effects at this time. Services at United Way Suncoast expand many areas - including financial coaching to lead families on the path to sustainability. Today, friend and partner, Ernest Hooper, VP of Communications at UWS, shares some resources to contact ahead of tax season and  explains how to access Emergency Rental Assistance.



A stack of bills sit unopened. The phone goes to voicemail out of fear it may be a collector. Parents wonder how they can get to work when the daycare center has shuttered, leaving them with no one to watch their toddlers.


A burgeoning number of people in our community grapple with a new and daunting reality as the financial challenges spurred by COVID-19 and a sputtering economy grind on. Long before March 2020, United Way Suncoast worked to elevate the lives of community members, but we recognize the pandemic has made our mission even more important.


Financial stability remains one of the cornerstones at UWS, and income tax returns continue to be a focus. Tax season begins Jan. 24, 17 days earlier than last year. The Internal Revenue Service anticipates delays in delivering returns because there's still a backlog from last year's returns. Plus, COVID and a shrinking IRS staff means people need to file early to get their returns in a timely manner.

United Way Suncoast is ready to help low- and moderate-income community members with free tax preparation services.


United Way Suncoast is ready to help low- and moderate-income community members with free tax preparation services. Our Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) staff can help people navigate the complexities. While people can file their own taxes with no assistance, our IRS-trained volunteers assure they get the maximum refund, including the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit.


It is also important for taxpayers who received a COVID-19 relief Economic Impact Payment last year or who got an advance Child Tax Credit payment to make sure they report the correct amount on their tax returns.


The broad work of United Way Suncoast and its partners in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties produced some stellar numbers in 2021: VITA returned more than $9 million in refunds to the community, including $3.2 million in Earned Income Tax Credits and Child Tax Credits. We helped them save $1.8 million in preparation fees. That's a total of $11 million coming back to the region. It'll be even more this year if the organization can reach more people in need of their services.


Those seeking assistance can make an appointment by calling 833-897-8482 (833-UWS-VITA) or visiting http://www.uwsvita.org/


United Way Suncoast’s focus on tax returns represents just one way it tries to infuse financial stability in the area. We want to aid in tax returns because we know in these difficult times putting dollars in the pockets of community members can help them deal with economic challenges.


Housing remains another challenge and the related eviction crisis has grabbed our attention. We empathize with those who have fallen behind on their rent. The worries about law enforcement serving them with a writ of possession are real, and the thought of ending up on the street with your possessions strewn has to be frightening.

If you’ve fallen behind on your rent, don’t wait until you receive an eviction notice.


United Way Suncoast has prioritized $3 million to address the crisis, and help deliver more Emergency Rental Assistance dollars to those in need.


Working with our strategic community partners, our eviction defense plan focuses on addressing six main areas across all five counties: creating cohorts of nonprofit agencies; regional planning and information sharing to increase access; sharing providing legal support to tenants facing eviction; direct client assistance distributed through partner agencies; building awareness about the issue; and continuing our advocacy efforts.


If you’ve fallen behind on your rent, don’t wait until you receive an eviction notice. It’s more difficult to mitigate the situation once you’re served. Look at your local county’s web site and determine if you’re eligible for emergency rental assistance. Here are the links to the county pages:  Hillsborough; Manatee;  Pinellas;  Sarasota; Rental Assistance for all Floridians. You also can dial 211 for assistance.

Our mission is rooted in creating lasting community impact.


If you have been served an eviction notice or you’re in immediate need of housing support please contact your local legal aide to determine available options. Bay Area Legal (Hillsborough and Pinellas), Gulfcoast Legal (Pinellas, Manatee and Sarasota), Community Law (Pinellas).


One county, Hillsborough, announced this month it’s distributed all of its emergency rental assistance. The good news is that a lot of residents were able to access more than $50 million in assistance. The bad news is that they’re still residents in need.


We understand the process can be daunting. You may want to talk to a person but most counties are distributing information through web sites. When UWS officials reached out to municipalities to ask how we could help with the logjam, one of the most consistent responses we heard involved rental navigation. So, much of our earmarked dollars will go towards hiring rental navigators. Renters in need of assistance routinely have more success meeting the demands of the application process when guided by a rental navigator.


In addition, we’re training volunteers to be navigators -- increasing needed staffing. This will work towards creating navigator cohorts with our partners. And, United Way Suncoast will provide additional dollars to increase legal aid support and provide financial help through our partners.


We will build on this initial effort while ensuring we remain agile in addressing the crisis in front of us. We recognize temporary relief must be coupled with sustainable changes, but at United Way Suncoast, our mission is rooted in creating lasting community impact.


--Ernest Hooper, VP of Communications, United Way Suncoast