The shocking extent of the borough’s debt crisis has been highlighted by new figures released by Newtownabbey Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB).
Over the past few years, the Rathcoole-based CAB office has seen a dramatic increase in the number of people seeking help with debt problems, and those unable to afford food or heat their homes.
The Bureau’s latest figures reveal that between April and December 2014, staff dealt with 476 new debt clients who between them owe in excess of £9million - an average debt of more than £19,000 per client.
The majority of that debt is negative equity, mortgage arrears, outstanding loans and unpaid credit card bills. But high interest store cards and payday loans are also a major problem for many.
Newtownabbey CAB district manager, Pat Hutchinson, said that in recent years staff have seen a significant increase in the numbers of people turning to the Bureau for help. Indeed, she confirmed that the number of debt clients has more than doubled since 2006/07.
The situation intensified in the run up to Christmas, with dozens of clients having to be directed to local foodbanks for basic provisions, while others were referred to churches and charities for help heating their homes.
“We had so many people in dire straits who we had to help with fuel, toys for Christmas, gas and electric and food. The referrals to the foodbank went through the roof before Christmas. People who just didn’t have any food coming up to Christmas - it beggars belief,” Mrs Hutchinson said.
“To come in and ask for food you have to be really desperate, but what is important about CAB is that we don’t judge anybody because there but for the grace of God go any of us. Any one of us could find ourselves in financial difficulties.”
Stressing that the CAB’s debt clients come from “right across the board” - unemployed teenagers, working professionals and even senior citizens - Mrs Hutchinson revealed that some of those being chased by creditors have been so anxious and stressed that they have attempted to take their own lives.
With another influx of debt clients expected later this month when the Christmas credit card bills start landing on people’s doorsteps, the CAB’s message to those who find themselves in financial difficulties is simple: “Don’t panic. We are here to help.”
Marion Hill, Newtownabbey CAB’s money advice worker, has been based at the Dunanney Centre office for the past 12 years and says she’s now busier than ever.
Having helped hundreds of clients deal with their debts using a range of options, including better budgeting, debt management plans, debt relief orders and bankruptcy, her advice to people with money problems is “stop spending and seek help.”
“If you are struggling, if you are in debt, do not take out any more debt. Sometimes clients feel that that is the solution, to get a payday loan to cover the minimum payment for this or that, but you just end up spiralling out of control and end up in a far worse position,” she explained.
“If you are struggling, just take a step back. Stop spending, stop borrowing and just have a look at your circumstances and come to the Citizens Advice if you need help.”
Urging those in financial difficulties not to pay for debt services, Mrs Hutchinson added: “Come and talk to us. We are here to help. It’s important to talk to someone outside the whole situation. Come and talk to us and get your benefits maximised, get your income maximised, then we can help you manage the process.”
• For free, impartial advice about dealing with debt contact Newtownabbey CAB on 028 9085 2271 or email firstname.lastname@example.org