Citizens Advice East Herts announces pop-up plans for Bishop's Stortford
A pop-up presence in Bishop's Stortford's Jackson Square is just one way Citizens Advice East Herts plans to embrace the ongoing challenges posed by Covid-19.
During the pandemic, staff and volunteers of the charity have helped more than 5,000 people by adapting and redesigning the service – and according to chief executive Laura Hyde, further changes are on the way to ensure the team keeps pace with growing demand.
Before the first lockdown forced their closure, the bureau operated from offices in South Street, Bishop's Stortford, and in Hertford, with outreach bases in Sawbridgeworth, Ware and Buntingford. As the second, four-week lockdown begins, the free information and advice service remains determined to keep helping those in need, even if plans have to change quickly to fit with Government restrictions.
Laura said: "People can now contact us via phone, email, webchat and Facebook Messenger. Where someone needs to be seen in person, we can arrange for a home visit or appointment in various locations, Covid-permitting. We are now exploring pop-up options in community spaces to raise awareness of how we can help.
"Thanks to Jackson Square, one of the places we hope to be using for this in the coming months is the old Argos unit, which has recently been rebranded."
New technology has played a part and the team is in the process of introducing advice appointments by video and developing 'bite-size' advice videos to help tackle some of the common issues staff deal with, such as redundancy and scams.
Laura said: "We've invested resources into building our social media presence and launched Instagram and Facebook Messenger to help us reach more people, many of whom have English as a second language."
The pandemic has increased partnership working and Laura was keen for this collaboration to continue.
She said: "We're particularly excited to be working more closely with the family centres and with CVS (Council for Voluntary Service) on their new JobSmart initiative, based at Charringtons House in Bishop's Stortford on a Monday.
"As a result of this greater partnership working, we've taken the decision to move out of the council building in Hertford, where we were co-located, and to run outreach from a range of community venues, including family centres. This will enable us to be more at the heart of where people need us."
The consequences of Covid-19 on the economy and its knock-on effect on employment has caused a rise in financial problems for many people.
"We've been investing in case workers who can provide specialist support on debt," said Laura. "We now have a team of three money advisers and are fundraising to expand the service so we can provide specialist support on housing, benefits and employment."
So far, she said, the changes have been well received: "Over two-thirds of clients surveyed since we moved to a remote service say our advice has helped them to understand their problem more clearly and 96% said they would use our service again."
One local councillor told Citizens Advice: "Thank you very much for all the excellent work which you do for the community. I think that you are needed more than ever now, in this horrible pandemic, and I know that many people have been really grateful for all the help which you have given them."
Chairman of trustees Tony Murphy said: "We're committed to helping as many people as possible – whoever they are, whatever their problem.
"Next year we'll be doing even more community engagement and, subject to funding, providing greater specialist support on money advice, employment, housing and benefits.
"We're grateful to the local community for getting behind us as a local charity and supporting our work. Funding will be even tighter next year following council cuts so we'll be stepping up our fundraising activities."
For further information see www.citizensadviceeastherts.org.uk .