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People's Postcode Lottery boost for Citizens Advice East Herts as it faces new wave of pleas for help

The People's Postcode Lottery has given Citizens Advice East Herts a £19,260 boost – but the charity still faces a mammoth financial struggle as it copes with Covid-19.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused a 27% increase in pleas for help to the service, which has an office in South Street, Bishop's Stortford, one in Hertford and outreach in Sawbridgeworth, Buntingford and Ware.

In 2019-20 CAEH helped 6,509 individuals on a range of issues including benefits, debt, housing, employment and relationships.

Citizens Advice, South Street, Bishops Stortford. Feature. .Pic: Vikki Lince. (41364117)
Citizens Advice, South Street, Bishops Stortford. Feature. .Pic: Vikki Lince. (41364117)

Its advice is available to everyone, but the charity supports some of the poorest and most disadvantaged in the community, many of whom need long-term support.

While it had to close its offices in response to Covid, its support for the community continued. In a remarkable feat for a small charity run mainly by volunteers, the team switched to a home working service within 48 hours of lockdown, offering advice by telephone, email, webchat and, most recently, Facebook Messenger.

Since March 23, they have helped over 3,300 people – 27% more than in the same period last year. The charity has seen employment issues increase threefold, with many seeking help on furlough and redundancy rights, up 159% compared to the same quarter last year.

Charlotte Keys (41363181)
Charlotte Keys (41363181)

Housing issues have risen by 39%, with many seeking help on how to access rent or mortgage support or advice on illegal evictions.

As well as providing free advice, Citizens Advice East Herts has continued to help with practical support such as referrals to Bishop's Stortford Food Bank. It is also working with Herts police to raise awareness of Covid-related scams. In the early stages, advisers at the charity called vulnerable clients to check if they needed help, providing support to around one in three.

As Government support starts to reduce with the end of the furlough scheme from November, the charity is expecting a fresh surge in demand for advice on debt, employment and housing.

National research shows that an estimated six million people in the UK have unpaid household expenses due to Covid-19 and four million have fallen behind on rent, council tax or a telecoms bill, where they have little protection from aggressive debt collection when temporary protections on enforcement come to an end.

Ready to help (41363184)
Ready to help (41363184)

The latest unemployment statistics for East Herts highlight just how important support services such as Citizens Advice will be, with a 400% increase in parts of Bishop's Stortford.

New research, drawn up by the Institute for Public Policy Research think tank, warns that withdrawing the furlough scheme with nothing in its place will cause unemployment at levels "not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s".

Dame Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice (national), said: "We're already supporting one person every two minutes on a redundancy issue."

Laura Hyde (41363177)
Laura Hyde (41363177)

Added to this, many people's mental health has suffered and the charity is working closely with Herts Mind Network to offer support.

Citizens Advice East Herts chief executive Laura Hyde said: "I'm really proud of what we've achieved. Thanks to our amazing volunteers, staff and trustees, we have been able to respond quickly and flexibly to the Covid crisis and continue to serve the local community.

"We are now able to help more people remotely as well as offering face-to-face support to those who really need it, with the necessary safety measures in place.

"We are expecting a huge increase in client numbers due to the economic impact of the pandemic, but if we can continue to work closely with partners and with the support of the community, I believe we will be able to meet local need."

The charity is appealing for help with fundraising to provide the IT resources and extra capacity it needs to continue helping the community.

For more information on how to get advice, get involved or support the charity, see www.citizensadviceeastherts.org.uk .

Volunteer and client feedback

While not all volunteers have been able to continue working during this time, the charity has had the support of over 50, many of whom are from Bishop's Stortford.

Linda, a former finance director of the Wellcome Trust, said: "I've been volunteering for over 13 years at Citizens Advice and no day is the same, which is why it's such an interesting role.

"The last few months have been very different with advising from home, but it has helped me retain a sense of purpose and structure as well as the satisfaction of helping clients with these difficult times."

The charity has seen its client demographic change as a result of Covid, with many people turning to it for help for the first time, spanning all ages and walks of life.

Jennifer (name changed) was shielding due to health issues. An adviser at Citizens Advice called her to check if she needed any support.

The conversation highlighted that she was eligible for Attendance Allowance and Severe Disability Premium. The adviser helped her fill in the necessary form over the phone and she's now receiving £156 a week to help her pay for the support she needs in the home.

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