Local advice services step up to deal with surge in demand
08 May 2020
As the Covid-19 emergency continues to affect all aspects of life in the North West, never before have local people relied so heavily on advice and guidance to navigate through the challenges presented by such a rapidly evolving situation.
With thousands more claimants now trying to access welfare support – many for the first time – the pressure on local advice services has never been higher. Applications have sky rocketed, as employers struggle to source support for employees as well as secure the long-term future of their business, and families seek aid as they face the sudden stark reality of life without a regular income.
The community and voluntary sector in Derry and Strabane has mobilised to provide a network of support, and one vital component in that resilience effort are the local advice service organisations who are providing round the clock guidance and information for those in most difficulty. They have seen a surge in demand for information on support mechanisms such as the Job Retention Scheme, Self-employment Income Support, Statutory Sick Pay, Universal Credit and mortgage advice.
Jacqueline Gallagher is Manager of the newly branded Advice North West – formerly Citizens Advice Bureau. Used to dealing face to face with their customers, they have been adjusting to the challenge of working remotely assisting people by email and phone and the limitations that brings.
"We've been so busy since we entered lockdown, it is a time of great uncertainty for many in our communities with a large volume of individuals and families worried about their security of income, housing and employment," she explains.
"We have dealt with a large influx of people who have had to access the benefit system for the first time. This can be a time-consuming process at any time but with the inability to provide face to face advice services we have had to be inventive in our approach to surmount the current social constraints and limitations.
"It's very tough for people who have never before had to navigate the benefit system and are now having to do so in such unexpected and upsetting circumstances. They are afraid of not being able to pay back debts, losing their homes, not being able to feed their families – it's an unbelievably anxious time. The difficulty is that everyone's situation is different, so each person needs a specially tailored approach. Our team dedicates themselves to ensuring the wellbeing of those who access our services."
As the situation has developed a range of additional welfare benefit measures and changes to the system have been introduced, and Jacqueline and the team are thankful that there has been such a swift response to the crisis.
"The Minister for Communities has been assured and sharp in her response and the Department has really been on the ball in how it has responded to support employers, employees and advice services," she stresses. "There has also been great collaborative work between partners – Advice NI, NICVA, Council and the advice services have all really pulled together.
"I think there will continue to be peaks and troughs, this is a very fluid situation and we will have to keep changing our approaches as circumstances change. There will be more peaks to come. There is greater calmness now after the initial chaos as many people have found a resting place i.e. furlough or benefits, during this current period of lockdown, but this will undoubtedly change as lockdown measures are eased and furlough periods end, and that will bring another surge for our advice sector.
"We need to prepare ourselves for what is to come and consider dynamic and innovative ways of delivering our services to have the maximum level of impact on our citizens, especially those who are struggling and need it most. We have always risen to the challenges facing our people in the past making best use of resources and will need to do so again.
"Usually in February we are ready for the fall-out from Christmas as the bills come in, and as domestic tensions escalate. With the likelihood of a recession and further uncertainty ahead, we need to be ready to offer support. Thankfully, the response in Derry has been fantastic, and it makes me so proud to lead a team of committed workers who are playing an active frontline role in that community response.
"I always say that advice is free, but peace of mind is priceless – and that is so true now. Never more have citizens required a vibrant and healthy independent advice sector as they do now. We will do anything we can to help our clients to ensure that they can live securely and with dignity, our clients always come first."
Jude McKinney is the Welfare Rights Manager of the Resource Centre Derry where the team has also been adjusting to new ways of working introduced to fast track services that are under increasing pressure.
"It really has been a challenge for our team," he admits. "We definitely saw a major spike in demand for services at the start as we had a lot of new issues to deal with. We received advance funding from Council and we have been allocated additional money through the Community Fund which helped us to meet this initial demand for services.
"We anticipated having to cover a lot of additional hours to allow for the extra filling out of forms. When we first entered lockdown we saw a huge surge in claims for things like employment benefit, self-employment support and the self-isolation job retention scheme. Then when the furloughing scheme was announced – something which no one was familiar with – it was another challenge helping both employers and employees understand how the scheme works to benefit them.
"We can no longer facilitate face to face appointments which is in itself challenging and we anticipated it would mean a lot of extra out of hours work for our staff. But thankfully there have been some fantastic measures introduced by the Department for Communities in terms of easement.
"They stepped in to introduce a number of easement mechanisms including a six-month extension of payments for existing claims, which has meant we haven't had to process a huge volume of renewal forms like for example Work Capability Assessments. We can also now sign on a claimant's behalf so they no longer have to come in to the centre to sign forms, which has been a big help.
"While this has given us a bit more breathing space we now anticipate there will be a spike in form filling come September and October. So there are definitely more pressures waiting down the line.
"It's hard to imagine how we will ever resume normal ways of working. I think this will all lead to a review of how we deliver advice services which will see it transformed in the long-term and I think we have a long way to go before we things return to any kind of normality."
Dove House is located in the heart of the Bogside in Derry, an area already suffering from high levels of deprivation. Welfare Advice Coordinator Donna Burke and the team of eight advisors based there have been inundated by calls from new claimants, but are buoyed up by the strength of the community resilience efforts in the area.
"I can see how it can be so frustrating for anyone trying to access benefits when there is so much uncertainty and change at the moment, we've had to adapt as best we can," she admits.
"The biggest concern is quite simply ensuring that people have enough money to live on. It's as basic as that. With so many new claimants, they have to get registered which can be a complicated process in itself, but then we have to explain to them that they will have to wait until that support comes through which leaves people extremely anxious. There can be no room for error. That's upsetting for our advisors as well.
"I'm so proud of our team – they are going above and beyond the call of duty every day – no one is turned away even if it means calling people back over and over again to make sure we can get them the help they need.
"Older people are definitely struggling at the minute as they rely on face to face help, and we just can't provide that at the moment. We've had to come up with new ways to assist them and help them navigate what can be quite a complicated process. And of course there is a lot of misinformation and uncertainty out there – not to mention scams - which is why people should come to us to ensure they are getting the right advice.
"We have a lot to learn from this unprecedented experience, and a lot to consider for the future, but things are so fluid it's difficult to capture things as they happen. We have to field what we can.
"The community effort has been phenomenal which means there is immediate help there for people when they need it most, when they might be waiting for other assistance to come through. Anyone who is in difficulty can contact their own community response team and support will be there. It's important that we maintain that effort, and continue to pull together – we all have a role to play!"
Anyone who is need of accurate advice or information can get in touch with the advice services at Advice North West, Resource Centre Derry and Dove House – go to www.derrystrabane.com/Community/COVID-19-Community-Support/Get-Advice for more information on opening hours and contact details.