Mum faced with prosepct of losing her home over £2,000 rent arrears turns to Haverhill chairty REACH for help
PUBLISHED: 14:42 29 October 2016
Simon Lee Photography
When families find themselves in debt, they often do not know where to turn – but in Haverhill one organisation is doing its best to help them turn their lives around.
Liz Nice went to meet the staff and beneficiaries of REACH.
Josephine is clutching a handful of brown envelopes containing documents that in a few short weeks might see her and her 14-year-old son homeless and out on the streets. As a last resort she’s come to the REACH drop-in at Leiston Road in Haverhill, seeing if there’s any way they can help to keep the bailiff at bay.
She’s had a summons to court because she’s got £2,000 of rent arrears - built up through the bedroom tax - and there’s no way of paying it back.
“I have a four-bedroom house, we’ve lived there for 22 years and I have raised my family there.”
She explained that she’s on benefits and there’s no way she could pay the additional rent because when her oldest child moved out, all her benefits changed as well.
“REACH is helping me sort out my money. Everyone here has been really helpful and someone is even going to come to court with me and explain that we are trying to do what we can to find a smaller property.”
Meanwhile, David and his uncle Michael are waiting to tell their story in a reception that is now completely crowded with people with worried faces and brown envelopes.
David explained they were living in a four-bedroom house when his mum suddenly died, and they became liable to a double whammy of bedroom tax and had fallen foul of recent changes in benefit legislation... and got into debt. “I had been registered disabled following a serious road accident - but then the Department of Work and Pensions decided I was fit to work and changed my benefits.
“We came to REACH because we had all sorts of problems. My mum always said that she didn’t know what would happen to us if she wasn’t there.
“They helped us with food; they helped us find a smaller house; they sorted out our benefits, showed us how to budget and even helped to arrange mum’s funeral.”
As a result of all this they are now both volunteering for the charity, helping with the food bank. “It’s the only way we know of saying thank you.”
Jacinto Barros, his partner Elis Angela Sanchez Da Costa and their three children have also had their lives turned around thanks to REACH.
Volunteer worker Lesley Ashford-Smith said that Jacinto, from Cape Verde, came to the attention of the charity with a red food voucher from social services and then he kept coming back.
“Our food bank is part of the Trussell Trust network and the rules are that you can have three boxes within three months.
“It turns out the food was just the tip of the iceberg - he’d previously had a good job earning over £1,000 a month as a cleaner but because of an accident and being on a zero hours contract he wasn’t entitled to sick pay,
“So his family, four people, were living on just £88 a week, they were in rent arrears, debt, and to compound it all Elis Angela was pregnant. In addition, their Working Tax Credit and Child Benefit had been stopped.”
Lesley said further investigation revealed they were living in high-rent housing that had problems.
“We worked with social services, the creditors, the landlord and various benefits departments and managed to get £10,000 back from HMRC. We’ve also managed to get him rehoused and he’s now back at work.”
Jacinto says: “I simply don’t know what we would have done without REACH and Lesley. Everything they have done has changed our lives.”
Henry Wilson, the CEO of REACH, said the charity started off 11 years ago at the River of Life Community Church in Haverhill as a debt advisory service.
Since then its services have just grown and grown and it now extends its services to everywhere within a 10-mile radius of Haverhill. In addition to the drop-in centre there’s now a warehouse to manage the food bank and office admin is also run from another premises.
“We were the 26th food bank to join the Trussell Trust and there are now more than 500 in that group across the country.”
There’s also a furniture bank and starter packs for those moving into new accommodation, and it’s also just launched an outreach project in the Jobcentre.
The charity, which costs £120,000 a year to run, of which £31,000 is regular giving, sees on average 180 people a month, but of late has been particularly busy.
Darren Chaplin sits on the grants panel of a private fund at Suffolk Community Foundation established from the legacy of a very modest lady who wished her generosity to remain anonymous.
Darren says: “The levels of deprivation present in Haverhill are quite staggering and we could not have been more delighted to grant £3,968 for the core cost associated with the vital service and support that REACH provide.”
Suffolk Community Foundation’s Tim Holder says: “I’ve paid several visits to the team at REACH. They are real champions for vulnerable people in crisis and demonstrate truly inspiring passion and empathy with every conversation they have.
“Often, completely unavoidable changes in the circumstances of an individual or family can turn everything upside down. REACH are there to provide vital support and advice to prevent an often already bad situation from becoming much worse. They support people to create stability and the vital upward path for their future.”
Henry Wilson leads the team and says the majority come along for help for filling or reading forms, they’ve had their tax credits stopped or been sanctioned by the Jobcentre for missing an appointment and their benefits aren’t being paid.
“Often it’s not their own fault; they’ve rung the Jobcentre with a proper reason but they still get sanctioned.
“Sometimes there has been a problem and people have fallen behind with their gas or electricity and don’t know what to do next.”
The reasons why this happens are complex. Sometimes people have problems reading and writing, and don’t understand the letters that have been sent. There may be mental health issues or people might make poor choices.
He said that the REACH team includes himself, Ann Merrigan and Corrine Sing, aided by 50 active volunteers, including Lesley, who gave up her employed role to give the charity additional funds.
Their aim is obviously to help people in need but also, where appropriate, to drill down and seek out the root cause of their debt/money issues.
In doing so, he said, they have amassed a huge amount of expertise in dealing with various agencies, which allows them to be really effective with the advice they give.