Debt is an all too common problem that we encounter as caseworkers. Financial hardship is on the rise during the austerity era and is often a miserable and overwhelming experience. No one chooses to be in poverty, and for some, the emotional burden – the blow to one’s pride and self-esteem – can be just as isolating as the lack of funds. The help centre at Body & Soul provides a space where members can come for help with their situation, and be guaranteed advice that is free from judgment, pity or shame.
What that advice should be however, can vary widely depending on individual circumstances. A good starting point for us is to ask about a person’s immigration status. An asylum seeker has very different opportunities from a British retiree, for example, though both can experience destitution. If a member is waiting for a decision from the Home Office on their immigration application, we can help them to navigate the workings of asylum support, or apply for hardship grants that can be awarded irrespective of immigration status.
What if a person does have the right to work, but has become too ill to continue in their job? Though it was proclaimed that the introduction of Universal Credit would help simplify our immensely complex benefits system, things are currently (during the switchover) more complicated than ever. We guide our members through the eligibility criteria for different benefits, and support them with their applications (and if necessary any appeals).
Bills don’t just stop during times of crisis, and people can quickly find themselves spiralling into debt, following unexpected issues such as losing a job, or having to help a family member with rising care costs. Such sudden changes in income or circumstances have been identified as the top reasons for the development of unmanageable debts by the Financial Conduct Authority. We help members access specialist debt advice by making referrals to organisations like Capitalise and StepChange, or we can work directly with members to organise affordable repayment schedules and to access debt relief.
In the worst of cases, some members do not have the money to buy food, toiletries or clothing for themselves or their families. Not being able to afford sufficient food is an intolerable situation for any person, but can be especially detrimental to those living with HIV: proper nutrition supports the immune system and aids in the absorption of medications, which is necessary if treatment is to be effective. We can refer members to food banks or to the HIV-specific charity Foodchain, which provides food hampers, cooking/nutrition education and communal meals. We also have access to other emergency hardship funds that can help people cover the costs of food and other basic necessities.
As caseworkers we have the experience and resources to assist people in financial trouble. And if we can’t help, we can refer members to a range of specialist organisations across London. Though sometimes there is no magic wand, and the road out of poverty is long and arduous, we support our members as much as we can on every step of the way. Our members will never have to face hardship alone.