Research conducted by the Consumer Council shows that social tenants struggle financially more than any other group, with 49% worried about making ends meet. I spoke with Clanmil’s Eddie Smith, who is one of the people helping tenants with their financial issues.
First of all Eddie, can you tell me what your role is at Clanmil?
I’m a money and benefits adviser for Clanmil and my job is to help tenants maximise their income. We do this by giving them advice about debt, or benefits or helping them in any way we can to improve their finances. It is all part of implementing Clanmil’s financial inclusion strategy.
Tell me a little about Clanmil’s Savvy Saver Scheme.
The Savvy Saver Scheme was set up in partnership with Credit Unions to promote financial responsibility and a saving culture.
We at Clanmil were worried about people going to high –cost credit lenders such as pay day loan companies or illegal money lenders. So we tried to come up with a service that would help people with their finances.
We looked at schemes in England and thought we could work with the excellent credit union network that Northern Ireland has.. Although SavvySaver is a saving scheme the ultimate aim is to support access to affordable credit.
Every tenant who signs up has their membership fee paid and a £5 deposit is made in their name. If tenants save at least £5 a week for 13 weeks we will give them a £20 bonus payment.
The scheme is rolling out slowly, currently we are working with three Credit Unions and we hope to add more in the next few weeks.
Can you give me an example of how you helped someone with their finances?
Usually clients come to me in one of two ways. Either they are referred to me by a housing officer who has seen that they are struggling, or they approach me themselves.
One gentleman was referred by a Housing Officer. He was struggling to pay his rent and had gotten into arrears. The man was off sick from work, he had some mental health issues and he was just struggling to cope.
We had a chat and ascertained that he used to work in the horticultural industry. I was able to give him some advice about his benefits and sick pay but I also contacted a charity called Perennial. They are an organisation that helps people who work in the gardening industry.
Perennial got in touch with the gentleman and they agreed to help him. They paid £746 for his rent arrears, paid his car insurance and spoke to his employer, getting them on board with a package that would help him get back on his feet while he dealt with his mental health issues.
After about 3 months he rang me up to thank me for helping him get back into work, which was very satisfying.
Other clients come from the independent living side of Clanmil. These clients are often elderly people who don’t realise that they’re eligible for certain benefits. One lady who came to us was entitled to £74 a week in pension credits and full housing benefit; it all came to around £8000 a year in unclaimed benefits. She was extremely grateful.
There are a lot of these cases where people don’t realise the benefits that they are eligible for. There is around £2 million a week of unclaimed benefits in Northern Ireland.
What about your job gives you the biggest sense of pride?
I suppose it is helping people who then come back and say thank you. The burden of debt can be crippling for people. One lady said to me that she felt like she had won the lottery after getting help, so that was quite satisfying.
It is nice to give people the advice and for them to then be able to go out and tackle their problems. Seeing the relief people feel when they get the help they need is really rewarding.
What message would you have for tenants who are struggling with their finances?
Get in contact! You can get in touch with your landlord or debt advice agencies, but just get advice and the earlier you tackle it the easier it will be.
I’ve seen very few debt problems that can’t be solved; there is normally a solution for most people. The quicker and earlier you approach someone the easier it will be for them to help you. And then when you get that advice, take it on board and act upon it.