‘It is so easy to lose everything’: tales of poverty, despair and dignity at a Citizens Advice centre | Society
When Chris Green, CEO of Citizens Advice Southwark, began his career in the 90s, his workload was mostly helping people with consumer issues – faulty appliances and so on. Once, he assisted a chef who had been sacked, and the restaurant owner refused to return his knives. Green, then a volunteer adviser at the Leeds city centre branch of the charity, went with the chef to recover the tools of his trade.
Today, people seek help for very different problems. The level of need has never been higher. Green and his team of 85 volunteers and 36 full-time staff are the last port of call for the soon-to-be-evicted and people with no food in the fridge. “These are very, very scary times,” he says. “And the worst is yet to be seen.”
We are sitting in his office at the back of the Walworth centre, opposite one of London’s few remaining pie, mash and eel shops. In a narrow corridor at the back of the building, advisers prepare for the day’s meetings in windowless cubicles; out front, two young women are queueing, waiting for the centre to open at 10am. Citizens Advice rebranded in 2015, dropping the word bureau from its name and this is one of three of the charity’s centres in the south London borough.
I am here to see how the cost-of-living crisis is affecting the people of Southwark. It is one of the most deprived local authorities in England: 31% of households live in poverty. Most who come to the centre have problems connected with benefits, housing and debt. About a third of homes here are privately rented, and people from the large Latin American community are particularly at risk of exploitation by rogue landlords – with English as a second language, some don’t understand the paperwork they are signing.
Green has the air of a man perpetually worried about where next year’s funding will come from. “People are talking about having to commit crimes to get by,” he says. He smiles tightly. “We’re only funded for money advice services until January next year.” The tight smile again. “People have negative budgets. There’s no money. There’s simply nothing there. That’s a new thing.” This time, the tightest of smiles.
Consumer price inflation is running at 7.8%, the highest rate since April 1991. Energy bills are soaring, up £693 since April, with a second increase of about £800 forecast in October. Wage growth is stagnant, while the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reports that benefits have been cut in real terms at the highest rate for 50 years.
By 10.30am, reception is full of people waiting for appointments. A man in an expensive puffer jacket sits beside a woman in a headscarf, rocking a pram. “Energy, energy, energy!” exclaims Kholoud Moramazi, a money support worker, from her office. “It has affected everyone. And it’s not even winter. So when the price increase hits in October …” She shakes her head.
Virtually everyone coming into the centre, she says, is struggling to pay energy bills. Moramazi can issue an emergency fuel voucher of up to £49 and a food bank voucher, but these are limited per person, and not a long-term solution. She says: “The question everyone is asking is, should I pay for my heating or my food?”
Moramazi is waiting for her first appointment, with a man in his 30s who has rent arrears and student loans. He doesn’t turn up. “People can be closed off about their debts,” she says. “He knows we’re here. When he’s ready, he’ll come.”
Her second client, Yvonne*, who is in her 70s, comes in. “Before, if I put £50 on my gas card, it would last for a few weeks,” she says, sounding bewildered. “Last week I put £50 on it and I couldn’t believe it finished already. It’s not so bad now because the temperature is OK, but when it goes cold, it will be very difficult.” Yvonne shuffles a stack of household bills in a plastic folder. (Clients invariably bring folders of bills.)
Because she is on cancer medication that weakens her bones, it’s important that Yvonne stays warm. “What I do most of the time is stay in my room,” she says. “When I turn on the hot water, the pipe runs through my room, so I get some of the warmth. Without that I would freeze.” Yvonne gives an abashed shrug. “You might say I am vulnerable!” she says, chuckling. Moramazi sets up a payment plan for Yvonne, so debt collectors won’t keep chasing her, and schedules a follow-up session to discuss switching energy supplier. “She did everything for me,” says Yvonne, still shuffling papers, as she makes her way to the door.
In an adjoining room, Annie Sirabidze, a senior money advice caseworker, is on a telephone appointment with Chantal*, who has mental health issues that make it difficult for her to leave her flat. “She’s in a terrible state at the moment,” Sirabidze says. Everything fell apart for her about seven months ago, when she suffered two bereavements and her ex-partner took their older child to live with him; she is fighting for custody. Chantal became too unwell to work and had to leave her job. “I hate being on universal credit because I’ve always worked,” says Chantal, flatly.
She is in arrears on the rent, gas, water, electricity and phone bills, and on the high-interest loans she took out to get by from month to month. “I used to be good with my bills,” Chantal says, sadly. Her universal credit was overpaid and is being deducted at £100 a month until it has been repaid, leaving her £400 a month to live on. “There are some days I sit in the dark and don’t put on my lights,” she says. “Because I am thinking, if I put on the light, how am I going to afford to pay?” She can’t afford fruit and vegetables, and often skips breakfast, even though she is not meant to take her medication on an empty stomach. Sirabidze has tried to persuade her to use food banks, but she refuses. “I went once and I was ashamed,” Chantal says.
All Chantal does is worry about money. She has more than £10,000 of debt. Last month, she was hospitalised because of her mental health issues, which are exacerbated by her money worries, so her younger child is living with his father at the moment, as she can’t look after him. Every time she looks around her home she thinks of her absent children. “I miss working,” says Chantal. “I miss seeing my money in my bank every month. I miss buying nice things for my children. We used to go on day trips to the seaside. But now them things can’t happen. I have to think about my priorities.” What is a priority? “Food. Bills.”
We discuss the government’s recently announced one-off grant of £650 for low-income households, to put towards the rising cost of living. “I am grateful,” says Chantal. “They say every little helps. But will that be enough to get people back on their feet?” Sirabidze discusses Chantal’s options with her: they plan to apply for personal independence payment (PIP) and discuss an application for a debt relief order, which would clear her debts. Chantal is reluctant, because the conditions mean she won’t be able to apply for most loans in the future: she needs to think about it.
After the call ends, Sirabidze is visibly moved. “I am also a mother,” she says. “I imagine being in that situation. Her kids are not there and she misses them. A few months ago she was functioning – she had savings, she had a life, she could afford to take her kids on holiday. Now all of that is gone. When I spoke to her for the first time, she said: ‘What’s the point of living? I just waste oxygen.’”
Chantal’s situation is not uncommon. Many of the people who come to the centre are in financial crisis as a result of physical or mental health conditions. Jaye Munro, a debt adviser, says: “A lot of the time when you fall into debt, it’s because you’re dealing with an underlying health issue.” She has just finished dealing with a client in her 40s with multiple health issues: “Her children are no longer in contact with her because they don’t like the idea of having a disabled mother.”
The client is not originally from the UK and has limited language skills. With the help of a translation app, Munro helps her to get a council tax reduction because of her disability. “She was ashamed of her debts because of how she appeared,” says Munro. (Arriving at reception, the client was well dressed.) The woman became emotional as she told Munro how lonely she was. “Her only company is her pets.”
What becomes apparent after even a few hours in the centre is how the welfare system has been scratched thin by years of austerity. Many advisers refer to the benefit cuts introduced by the government in the aftermath of the financial crisis, the rise of insecure zero-hours or gig economy employment, and more recent financial shocks related to Covid, Brexit and rising gas prices. Financial calamity breeds despair. Clients sometimes threaten to harm themselves in the building. It is not uncommon for people to be suicidal.
Sirabidze tells me about a client in his 40s who came in a few weeks ago. He lost his job as a security guard during the pandemic and fell behind on all his bill payments. His electricity supply has been cut off: now he can’t sleep because he can’t plug in the continuous positive airway pressure ventilator (Cpap) machine he needs to breathe at night. “He was sofa-surfing in order not to die.” Sirabidze issued him an emergency fuel voucher and will speak to his energy provider. She says: “I’ve done this job for eight years – but in the last couple of years, it’s as if I can’t remember anyone saying, ‘I’m OK.’ And the last few months have been even worse.”
She breaks off as her next client arrives. Kwame*, in his 60s, is accompanied by his son Isaac*, who is there to translate. Kwame speaks limited English. He works as a cleaning supervisor for 17 hours a week in an office. He used to work full-time, but had to reduce his hours. “My health is not good,” Kwame says, staring into space. A plastic bag full of papers that Isaac has pulled together sits by his feet: it contains bills, medical records and rent statements. Kwame has gout, diabetes, high blood pressure and prostate issues. He receives universal credit to top up his wages, but it’s not enough.
What becomes apparent from speaking to Isaac is that Kwame has been teetering on the brink of financial ruin for most of his life, incurring debts even while working, thanks to low wages. Now, the debts have caught up with him, and ill-health means he can’t afford the repayments any more. “He’s stressed out,” says Isaac, referring to debt collection agencies. “People keep calling him every day.” Kwame continues to work, although he is really not well enough. “Sometimes he calls me up and says he feels dizzy,” says Isaac. “I tell him to sit down and drink something.”
Sirabidze manages to get Kwame a 60-day breathing period on his debts, to stop the phone calls, and they discuss the documents he will need to apply for a PIP. Both men thank Sirabidze and depart for the GP surgery to collect yet more documentation to help with Kwame’s PIP application. “He’s worked most of his life,” says Isaac, as they leave. “Paying taxes. And when he needs help he has to go through this whole process, and it’s more stress. It’s not good. Someone who has been working their whole life. He’s paid his dues.”
After they leave, Sirabidze and Munro decompress in an empty room. Both agree that Kwame will be OK because he has Isaac fighting his corner. The people who come into the centre, they explain, are not actually the worst off. Having the mental strength to tackle your problems head-on is often beyond people in crisis. Others lack the language skills to access the centre. A third group may not have access to their finances or documentation because of exploitation and abuse.
“My job makes me appreciate everything I have because it’s so easy to lose everything,” says Sirabidze. Misfortunes pile upon each other, like dominos: it only takes one slip to set off a cataclysmic chain reaction. She turns to me with a smile. “And now,” she says, “you see what we do here.”
* Some names have been changed