By Prem Calvin Prashad
Richmond Hill is underserved by government agencies, while community organizations struggle under a dearth of funding. Yet, despite this benign neglect, the neighborhood has swelled in population, sustained by immigration that has increased the Indo-Caribbean and South Asian community. The neighborhood features a robust variety of small businesses, with a high level of homeownership. However, the need for services has never been higher.
Chhaya Community Development Corporation is a Jackson Heights-based non-profit that has long operated in Western Queens to facilitate economic and civic empowerment in immigrant communities. The organization focuses on South Asian communities, but maintains networks with immigrant organizations across Western Queens. According to its executive director, Annetta Seecharran, “Chhaya has had a long interest in Richmond Hill, [but] over the last few weeks, we’ve been trying to bring more sustained, regular programing to the neighborhood.”
Under a broader theme of “poverty-fighting” services, the organization announced the launch of free tax prep for the community at a Feb. 7 press conference, held at the Lefferts Library on Lefferts Boulevard in Richmond Hill. Queens Library President Dennis Walcott praised the organization and its partnership with the NYC Department of Consumer Affairs as the reason why the library “is able to provide free, high-quality services.”
The organization has been offering tax-prep assistance since 2015. Tax preparation efforts are centered on maximizing the Earned Income Tax Credit for families.
“Conventional tax preparers are usually not focusing on this,” Seecharran said.
In a press release, the organization notes that “qualified individuals do not take advantage of the EITC, leaving thousands of dollars on the table.” The service is available to families that earned less than $66,000 in 2017.
Lack of access to financial tools is a citywide issue and is especially pertinent where, according to Seecharran, as much as 30% of the community may be self-employed. The economic reality of how many earn a living, as well as the fact that the neighborhood has a high level of homeownership is why the organization identified tax services as an opportunity to make a high impact. These economic and cultural similarities to Jackson Heights made expanding into the neighborhood a natural “next step” for the organization.
“I’d love to see a full-fledged Chhaya center in the neighborhood, one that provides full-fledged wraparound services,” Seecharran said.
Wraparound services are services that adapt to the dynamic nature of people’s lives and utilize the support systems that they already have available. In Chhaya’s case, that would include financial counseling, adult literacy, immigration services and civic engagement — a model that has been successful in Jackson Heights since its founding in 2000.
The organization has been able to identify some of the more unique challenges that neighborhood residents face. Adult literacy is a major issue, which in turn affects the quality of information that people are able to access, as well as their ability to pass the citizenship test. Though the Indo-Caribbean community is english-speaking, some adults and the elderly do require assistance with legal documents and government forms.
Additionally, Chhaya intends to begin targeted programming at raising the profile and civic engagement of women in the community. Local activists have declared domestic violence against Indo-Caribbean women as an issue of importance in the community. Recent, high profile murders of women by intimate partners has brought the community into a period of reflection, largely to ensure that women in these situations know about their options for safety, as well as ensuring that people are able to identify friends, relatives and neighbors in abusive relationships. Seecharran hopes that raising the number of female leaders in the community contributes to the goal of elevating people that represent the interests of the community.
NYC Free Tax Prep is offered at Lefferts Library on Feb. 7 and 21; March 7 and 21; and April 4 at 11 AM. Information on this and related tax services is available at nyc.gov/