A small army of volunteers is guiding Hammersmith & Fulham residents through the minefield of questions, problems and issues arising from the coronavirus crisis.
Although local Citizens Advice offices – which are financially supported by H&F Council – have been forced to suspend face-to-face meetings during lockdown, 30 staff and more than 40 volunteers are working from home, from their laptops and phones, to help the community understand their rights.
Chief Officer Phil Storey said: “We have more and more volunteers coming online every day, so if you need our help we are here.”
The pandemic has thrown up scores of issues, with answers to the most frequently asked questions including sick pay, work discrimination, food poverty, benefits, debt and housing covered in detail on their website.
“Citizens Advice is here to support H&F residents in these very unusual times, and we know that many are facing situations they have never faced before,” said Phil, adding that website advice was updated daily to reflect latest developments.
In the first week of the national lockdown, two-thirds of callers were borough residents who had never had to claim welfare support before, and who were advised that their only option for money was Universal Credit (UC).
Many had additional complications with claiming due to language barriers, disability or because, as European citizens, they were denied access to benefits under residence rules.
Citizens Advice H&F was able to help people claim if they lacked the skills to do so, and helped residents apply for the EU settlement scheme where they qualified.
One grateful help-seeker, Maryam, said: “I would never have been able to complete the UC claim without your support. It took a few hours as I cannot speak English very well and have no computer skills, and my husband is Disabled. I had no one else to help me.”
Another, Anne, said: “Yinka from H&F Citizens Advice was very patient and helped me to process my application via phone... which took us nearly two hours! I really appreciate the support I had.”
Surge in demand
Claiming Universal Credit in situations of desperation has proved difficult because of the sudden surge of demand. In the past two weeks, when around 100,000 claims would normally have been made, the Department for Work and Pensions has fielded nearly 1,000,000.
The Universal Credit guidance pages on the national Citizens Advice charity website have seen a 400 per cent increase in visitors since lockdown.
Others who have used the services of Citizens Advice H&F include David, who made contact after he lost his job.
Unsure whether he was employed or self-employed, staff helped him understand his status and his eligibility for the self-employment grant.
The problem is, the earliest it will be paid is June. David had not claimed benefits before, and a UC claim was going to take five weeks, so staff were able to help him organise an advance payment.
Each year Citizens Advice H&F service sees 12,000 people, obtains £1.1million for service users and addresses £3.2m in debts. In all, 125 volunteers give their time to help others.
“Residents who do not understand their rights in unusual and difficult situations they have never faced before are welcome here,” added Phil.
Want to read more news stories like this? Subscribe to our weekly e-news bulletin.