Debt advice and other services face cuts while demand for them increases. Mary O’Hara talks to residents and service providers in Bromley-by-Bow, East London.
Directly outside Bromley-by-Bow tube station in East London is a busy flyover with streams of noisy traffic speeding by, yet, just a few minutes walk away, hidden among the densely packed streets and housing estates of the area, are the leafy surroundings of the Bromley by Bow Centre (BbBC). Positioned in a small park right at the heart of the community it serves, the centre, which provides general welfare advice for the local population, is having to respond to multiple challenges in response to the difficult economic climate and ongoing changes to benefits.
Tamara Hopewell, a worker at the centre, says the staff and clients of BbBC are very much at the sharp end of austerity policies.
"We are definitely anticipating increased demand in the coming months," she says as she explains the myriad services provided by BbBC, from art classes for disabled people to debt counselling.
From basic things [where] you have people queuing up for advice to other things where it's [usually] harder to bring people in, like the money management classes."
The areas the BbBC caters for include the electoral wards of Mile End and Bromley-by-Bow, districts with a combined population of around 26,000 residents and with a diverse ethnic make-up. The borough of which they are a part, Tower Hamlets, is the third most deprived in England and has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the country meaning, Tamara says, that demand for assistance was high even before the cuts began to roll out.
A noticeable change in recent months, she says, has been the number of people queuing for debt advice services – some "in the freezing cold" and from very early in the morning.
Recently with the cuts what's massively changing is the demand we've got for the advice service," she says.
One unexpected but sure sign that people's situations have been steadily worsening, Tamara adds, is the fact that more are coming forward to seek assistance with debt issues they would have been too ashamed to talk about in the past.
It's starting to be something that everyone is talking about. Suddenly people feel less embarrassed. They feel they can come in and speak to people.!"
However, just as demand has begun to surge, council funding for the debt advice service has been cut and the number of staff has almost halved.
It's a massive cut. It makes it difficult. A lot of volunteers are helping out at the moment. You just don't understand how they can justify making any of the cuts when they know that people will always need us. If they're going to make the cuts to benefits then they can't make the cuts to welfare centres that are there to support the people."
When the centre's debt advisers gather in the café they talk animatedly about the new pressures they are under.
They agree with Tamara that as increasing numbers of people are confronting indebtedness – made worse, they suggest, by rising utility and food bills and then compounded by changes to benefits – it has reduced the taboo around asking for help. That people are more willing to overcome social stigma around debt is a positive development the group say. However, all the advisers warn that demand for their services is likely to rise further during 2013 and they worry they can cope with limited resources.
We do monitoring every quarter and if I look at the whole report… you can see that for the last two years clients who have been in debt has increased twice as much," one adviser says.
It's a huge problem. I felt really angry when we actually got the news that the main funding from the council has been cut by more than 75 per cent because … they can see that demand has increased."
Another adviser says that private tenants in particular are worried about housing benefits changes and are coming to the centre more for advice in greater numbers. She warns of 'a crisis' on the horizon as family budgets are stretched.
Alea Khanam, a local resident who has five children, comes to the BbBC regularly for advice ranging from how to ensure her home can be appropriately adjusted to meet the needs of her severely disabled oldest child to "any problems" with benefits.
She says navigating the existing benefits system can be bewildering and she worries that if advice centres are experiencing cuts to budgets or possibly face closure in the future, people like her may not have the same access to support they have become accustomed to.
If [they] go where should I go? I need this centre, truly, because me, myself, my family, need the advice centres."
Another local resident and longstanding community volunteer, Gary Parsons, advocates on behalf of people if, for example, they need someone to accompany them to benefits offices to help explain procedures. He says the past couple of years have been especially difficult on local residents.
To me people just seem to get poorer and poorer. We get a kick in the teeth every time."
Even with advice centres such as BbBC and numerous enthusiastic volunteers, Gary says he can’t help but think that times are about to get tougher.
I think things will get worse next year when all the cuts take place and the benefits system is going to change. Some people are going to end up going to their Post Office account and there's going to be no money there and they're not going to know what to do."