A GRANT of £30,000 will help Citizens Advice staff cope with a 30 per cent rise in queries from people plunged into debt or worried about their jobs because of the pandemic.
Dorset Community Foundation made the award to Citizens Advice Central, which covers area between Shaftsbury, Gillingham, Sherborne, Dorchester, Weymouth and Portland, from its Corton Hill Fund. The fund was set up by a family to address issues in north Dorset including disadvantaged children and young people, older people and health and wellbeing and has made more than £65,000 worth of grants this year.
Citizens Advice chief officer Daniel Cadisch said the grant will be instrumental in helping the charity’s 45 part-time staff and 170 volunteers deal with the increase in people coming to them for help.
“For us it is about having the capacity to cope with that extra demand and that’s what this funding is going to make a big difference towards,” he said.
“It really consolidates how we can work, allows us to train additional volunteers and have extra training for our existing team. It will also allow us to get some training in health and wellbeing for our team so we can make sure they are in a good place.”
Staff, who usually deal with around 30,000 queries a year, have seen a steady rise since the first lockdown and Mr Cadisch is expecting more people to come forward once furlough ends and companies shed more jobs and payment holidays for mortgages and credit card debts are over.
“What we are expecting over the next 18 months to two years is the economic impact of Covid to come through,” he said. “People are on the edge financially, whether it is rent arrears or other debts building up and a reduction in hours meaning that they are bringing in less. We are expecting a surge in demand as a result.”
He said many of the charity’s newer clients come from a cohort who have never been in debt before.
What we are expecting over the next 18 months to two years is the economic impact of Covid to come through
“What we’ve seen over past ten years or so is that there are a lot of people who have been just on the right side of the financial line so they have been just about coping,” he said. “While their work and their earnings were maintained they have just about kept their heads above water – but what Covid has done is just pushed a lot of people over that line.”
He said clients who have always been financially independent are suddenly having to admit they need help. “What we find is that first step to go to someone and admit you are struggling is very tough and it takes a lot of courage to do that. It’s that sense of an admission that things haven’t worked out and that’s a tough one for people,” he said.
Many of them are having to negotiate the benefits system for the first time and are bewildered by how complex it is. “A lot of people say to us ‘the Universal Credit scheme looks like a complete mess to me, I don’t know where to start with it’ so we are there to help people through that maze,” said Mr Cadisch.
Staff have found that people can panic when bills begin piling up, hoping that things will get better or turning to pay day loans or debt management companies who charge high fees to negotiate with creditors.
“Unfortunately where there is an opportunity there is someone who will go in and charge that extortionate interest rate or exploit someone who is vulnerable, so it is up to us to be an independent, trusted voice who can tell people ‘there is a way through this, you don’t need that loan that is iffy’,” said Mr Cadisch.
Citizens Advice staff will talk clients through a budget and help them reduce credit payments and intercede with companies demanding money, helping clients to prioritise which are the most important.
“A lot of our work is helping people at that crisis point but also over a longer term to help them get back on their feet,” said Mr Cadisch. “We give them help with their budget and to increase their income, talk to their creditors and then they can help themselves because they have a new set of skills and they are more resilient.”
He said the grant will enable the charity to help more people and support its staff. “We are very grateful for Dorset Community Foundation’s help and for the money from the Corton Hill Fund,” he said.
“It will allow us to build on our employment and debt expertise. It will help us to have additional supervision for our volunteers who are working remotely and that’s one of our most pressured jobs. This funding will support our core work to maintain that support for our volunteers.”