“I felt like I couldn’t talk about it. It was a feeling unlike anything else. At my stage in life you’ve coped with so much, bereavement and injury and loss, but this is a different kind of hell.”
Michael came to Citizens Advice Barnet when he reached crisis point. A pensioner, Michael struggled with his administrative affairs and had yet to claim his pensions. He described to me the idea that he felt like “a hairdresser trying to cut his own hair” when trying to manage his money and affairs alone.
He had been living off of savings and wasn’t aware how close he was to the edge. He described the moment he ran out of money as “devastating.”
The results were immediate and severe. The bank cancelled all his standing orders and he was left with no money for food or energy bills. As is so often the case, the debts began to mount up.
Wherever he turned, Michael felt like there was no way out: “you end up running into brick walls everywhere and it becomes such a huge fight.”
His attempts to contact services to help him were met with the frustrations of a digital age where access to the internet is fundamental to getting help. This is digital exclusion and it is increasingly prevalent in society:
“I went to the library to use the internet but my phone wasn’t working and I just felt like I couldn’t get out of the cycle. I kept getting stuck in an internet loop.”
Searching for someone to help led him to Citizens Advice Barnet.
Someone to listen:
Michael rang the helpline and spoke to Helpline Assessor Sumi: “I can’t tell you how wonderful she was. Words can’t express it but it was better than I’d ever expected. She seemed to have all the time in the world for me”
Sumi was quick to reassure Michael that Citizens Advice Barnet would be able to help him. She booked him two appointments – one with energy adviser Natalie and one with debt adviser Eva. She also identified the need to help him get access to his pensions. She explained the process and sent him the necessary forms. Michael says he got this started as soon as she sent them over.
“I felt somebody cared and I could talk to someone about it. It’s amazing how much it motivated me”
Help when it’s needed:
Michael’s issue was complex, with lots of threads to untangle. The first step was to work with Natalie to put a hold on the energy debts that he couldn’t afford to pay without access to a pension.
“She did a lot of work on the phone to the energy companies. She had the patience of a saint, I was ruffled listening to her just dealing with them.”
Natalie was able to find out that Michael had arrears of over £4000 with the energy company, though this was based on estimates rather than metre readings. Together they began to work out how much Michael actually owed and what support was available.
The next step for Michael was to work with Eva to address the rest of his debts.
“She was very supportive and contacted many people I owed money to. She gave me sources for other kinds of money such as pension credit and other funds.”
Between Eva and Natalie, Michael was able to put a hold on the collection of his debt, whilst he applied for his pensions and various other short-term grants designed to help people cope with debt. They were also able to issue him with foodbank vouchers and a new SIM card to address the immediate situation he had been left in.
Finding a way to move forward:
Although several issues are ongoing, Michael is now feeling more positive about his situation. He looks forward to paying off his debts and hopefully using his pension to help him get more connected with a new computer: “I’ve put several things in process and Citizens Advice Barnet have put several things in process. I feel like I’m not out of the woods yet but I’m walking through the woods and I can see a way out.”
For Michael, it is essential that we open up the conversation around debt, especially at a time when the cost of living has pushed so many people into a negative budget.
“Debt is the ultimate taboo – we talk about everything in society except debt. I felt like I couldn’t talk about it with anyone. The social isolation is immense”
His bravery in sharing his story is matched only by the kind words he has for the people that helped him at Citizens Advice Barnet:
“It sounds like a small thing, but finding people who have time for you is so rare these days. Finding people who are so universally supportive, understanding and trustworthy is unbelievable. They’ve helped me get my sanity back!”
I felt somebody cared and I could talk to someone about it. It’s amazing how much it motivated me