The Lansing branch of the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now was already in trouble by the time the videos of James O’Keefe and his associate, Hannah Giles, surfaced last September.
In early 2009, ACORN’s Grand Rapids office closed, followed shortly by the Detroit office. The Flint branch closed in September around the same time O’Keefe’s heavily edited videos surfaced, which depicted ACORN workers allegedly participating in illegal activities. Then, in early October, the Lansing office closed, leaving Michigan without an ACORN branch.
“We didn’t close totally because of the videos,” said Carrie Guzman, who served as the head organizer for Lansing ACORN. “But funding had been decreasing and decreasing and decreasing, and so the last piece that we were surviving on was reimbursement for any of the service provision.”
That is, the Lansing branch was surviving on a small federal subsidy. After O’Keefe’s videos surfaced, Congress passed the De-fund ACORN Act of 2009, which cut off all funding to the group — though ACORN only received a small part of its funding from the government. Also, like many charities, ACORN saw donations decrease as the economy got worse.
The federal money was the only lifeline for the Lansing ACORN branch. “When they put a clamp on (funding), there was no way we could continue. We were running so tightly on everything anyway,” Guzman said.
It just so happens that a year like 2010 would have been particularly busy for ACORN. Usually at this time, the Lansing ACORN branch would be helping provide free tax filing services for low and moderate-income individuals and families. ACORN was also set to help with the 2010 Census, using its grassroots base to reach hard-to-count populations.
Guzman said that ACORN’s primary goal is helping communities organize around common issues and needs. For instance, the group helped over 200 Lansing residents modify home loans or stop their home from being foreclosed. But ACORN has grown to provide a wide range of services like tax preparation and registering voters — even before O’Keefe’s videos, ACORN had been dogged by accusations that it was registering non-existent voters.
Last year the Lansing branch provided free electronic tax return filing for over 400 residents, Guzman said. The need for the service came about after a lawsuit ACORN filed against the fees some of the larger tax preparation companies charged. A certified public accountant was hired from the money awarded from the lawsuit to help residents with tax returns.
Though not all local residents who need assistance filing a tax return were helped by ACORN, Guzman said that there is less help to go around.
“I have run into probably three or four people already that have gone and paid somewhere to do their taxes and they would qualify (for assistance) but they weren’t able to get an appointment quickly enough because of capacity issues,” Guzman said.
Eaton County Commissioner Linda Keefe, coordinator of the Asset Independence Coalition, which provides free tax services in Clinton, Ingham and Eaton counties for low and moderate-income families and individuals, said that ACORN’s absence is being felt.
“ACORN did a lot of returns, and they were open every day,” Keefe said. Last year, “ACORN did at least 400 returns.”
This year, the coalition is pushing for more awareness of the earned income tax credit. In years past, residents could get back 10 percent
of their federal refund from the state, but this year it has doubled to
20 percent. Keefe urged anyone who needed help with taxes to call 211
because the coalition does not publicly announce locations of free tax
In addition to tax services, ACORN had planned to help with the 2010 Census. But a few days after the O’Keefe videos were released, Census Director Robert M. Groves sent a letter to ACORN cutting ties with the group.
Guzman said there is sometimes distrust of the government in many communities ACORN serves, and it could have provided education and legitimacy to the census.
Guzman said the local ACORN branch had about 5,000 contacts in the city, and she is volunteering her personal time to help with the count.
Getting a correct count is extremely important because it determines how Michigan — and Lansing — receives federal funds and for representation in Washington.
“Michigan is expected to loose one member of Congress, possibly two, without a correct count,” Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope said.
He said the city is working with many volunteer organizations to make sure a correct count is collected. “A big part of it is getting awareness out so people respond,” he said.
Guzman feels confident the city is taking the correct measure to get the count, too.
“I think they are doing a lot of things this year that they haven’t done before,” she said, “They really are pursuing it much more aggressively.”
Even though ACORNs future is in question right now, Guzman does not want people to misunderstand ACORN’s role.
“The biggest hole (in service) is in people having a voice at a state and federal level,” she said.
Free tax help
To set up an appointment for free tax preparation, dial 211 Free tax
filing services are available to Ingham, Eaton and Clinton County
residents To volunteer or support the Asset Independence Coalition,
email Linda Keefe at firstname.lastname@example.org