‘We’re seeing real distress’: on the road with Citizens Advice as cost of living crisis deepens | Society

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In an empty market opposite the Morrisons superstore in Wednesbury, a small town amid the West Midlands urban sprawl, a tiny mobile outpost of the local Citizens Advice charity is hard at work, offering practical support to a stream of people who pitch up seeking respite from the grim challenges of poverty and the cost of living crisis.

These are the kind of unhappy tales – of debt, unemployment, benefits and housing problems – that often go unheard, or are ignored, until they balloon out of control, by which time it can be too late. But this time there is help at hand.

Citizens Advice is the often-neglected safety net that helps prevent those in crisis from plummeting into the societal abyss. Set up with public funding at the beginning of the second world war, its offices have consistently been the sorting house for all those whose problems outstrip their capability.

Over the past year, its 250 local offices – each an independent charity – have experienced record demand. Typically, it has been for crisis support – often involving a referral to a food bank, help with energy bills, benefits or debt advice, and homelessness. “The situation for people is getting worse daily,” says Clare Moriarty, chief executive of Citizens Advice.

The trouble is that the offices are often a long way from where people live, and if they have jobs or dependents or, as is often the case, don’t have the money for travel, they can miss out on much-needed advice. The answer is a mobile unit that can drive out to hotspots and open its side and back doors to the passing local community.

On a bitterly cold morning, Florence [not her real name], a woman approaching retirement, is out shopping when she spots the mobile unit, a converted truck with a subdivision for two small offices and a humming generator to heat the interior. Florence is a few weeks short of turning 66, and is still working part-time. She wants to retire but she doesn’t know if she can afford to.

One of the two trained advisers, a young man named Dom, runs through all the possible benefits and rebates that she might be able to claim, nearly all of which she hasn’t heard of. This is common – to negotiate the complex benefits system requires arcane social policy expertise, a gift for maths, and a lawyer’s appreciation of citizens’ rights.

Dom gives her an estimate of what she might be entitled to, and then tells her to bring the full details of her income and expenditure to the nearest Citizens Advice office, where the staff will help her put together her claim.

The next client is a woman looking to divorce an abusive husband. They have four children, two under 18, she is on disability benefits, and seems at her wit’s end. “I need to get away,” she tells the other adviser, Dan. “I can’t cope with my health, the kids and him.”

She has limited knowledge of her rights or protections or indeed what the whole daunting process of divorce involves legally and financially. But by the time she leaves the cramped unit half an hour later, she is primed and empowered with a basic understanding of the help and support she can receive.

And so they continue, filing in and out, each person with a tale of woe or anxiety, frequently exacerbated by a desperate shortage of money.

“Debt has always been a big problem,” says operations manager Jane Piggott Smith, “but it’s become far more common recently. We’re seeing some very distressed clients coming in. People get all these bills and debts and they bury their heads in the sand, and then they come to us with a plastic bag full of unopened letters and bailiffs’ threats of eviction.”

Citizen Advice can help them come to resolutions with creditors, sometimes getting the debts written off. January is the main month for debt panic. People try to forget their financial predicament over Christmas, perhaps spending money they can’t afford to provide respite for their families. “And then the credit card bills come in,” says Piggott Smith.

Citizens Advice is one of the 2022 Guardian and Observer charity appeal’s two partner charities. Its share of donations raised by the appeal will support general services and innovative outreach work at its branches in some of the UK’s most deprived neighbourhoods.

As the recession bites, inflation continues and the poor get poorer, an increasing number of people will live in a state of crisis. Mostly their struggles will be invisible to onlookers; you’ll walk by them in the street or shopping centre and have little or no idea of the mental turmoil in which they pass their days.

But if they are fortunate enough to encounter one of the Citizens Advice outreach units, there’s a good chance that their worries can be alleviated, that their unmanageable problems can be managed.

It’s not a solution to all the challenges that confront the overlooked and the unlucky, but almost everyone leaving the unit in Wednesbury appears a little less weighed down by life’s burdens than when they went in.

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