Have faith in debt charities: More people are turning to organisations which help the poor


Charities which help the poor and indebted, particularly religious ones, expect to be busier than ever in 2012. January and February are going to be particularly busy months for them as more impoverished individuals and families seek help. Christmas is often a turning point for people with debts; in the cold light of January many decide they need advice.

Non-believers may not like the idea of going to faith charities for assistance, but those organisations are willing to help where they can and some, such as the 146-year old Salvation Army, have an extraordinary track record. These charities – whether Jewish, Hindu, Christian or of other faiths – often have organisational capabilities and networks and a clear sense of mission that make them well-suited to providing practical philanthropy.

Ordinary people who are down on their luck can often find help here. The main barrier is frequently a simple lack of knowledge about these organisations. Once contact is made, however, these bodies can provide a range of services from food parcels and clothes to debt advice and job clubs.

The Trussell Trust expects to help 100,000 people in 2011/12 – with food boxes giving three meals a day for three days – through its network of nearly 170 church-based centres. It will have helped 64 per cent more people than last year. The trust is now opening centres at the rate of two a week.

"The church has always been about social projects – and more so now," says spokesman Mark Ward, food-bank manager in Salisbury. "Many churches are struggling for cash themselves, so donating of money is becoming more difficult. But, if they can't give cash, they can give time. And with the shrinking of numbers in the Church of England, there is a feeling that if you want to be relevant you have to go out and do something useful for people outside."

Other charities which are not increasing their work are maintaining it. For instance, the Radha Krishna Temple in London's Soho has for years provided 100 free meals a day to the homeless in nearby Holborn, and plans to continue doing so. Sister groups provide free meals in many other locations. Similarly, the British Sikh Council includes among its aims the running of "charitable projects for... impoverished and downtrodden people".

CAP (Christians Against Poverty) now offers free face-to-face debt advice (see case study) from 190 churches. It plans to expand to all major towns and cities in the UK through a 500-strong network within four years. As with the other charities mentioned above, it has no rule about only helping fellow believers. "We help everybody," says spokeswoman Marianne Clough.

CAP started out 15 years ago after its founder, John Kirkby, found himself reduced to living in a bedsit and eating bacon sandwiches on Christmas Day after his business career went awry. On his own road to Damascus, he set up the charity. Other religious charities are changing the way they work in current conditions. The Salvation Army – organiser of advice clinics, emergency assistance such as groceries, luncheon clubs and 70 homes for the homeless – was overwhelmed to receive 10,000 coats in its recent Donate A Coat campaign.

"The simplicity of the idea caught on," says spokeswoman Ann Stewart. "It doesn't cost much to give a coat but it makes a big difference."

Captain Elizabeth Hancock of the Salvation Army branch in the Black Country's Cradley Heath was "absolutely overwhelmed by the generosity of the local community" to receive 900 coats in donations.

"Those who have are recognising that those without are really feeling the pinch," she says.

New groups of people need help from organisations such as the Trussell Trust, the Salvation Army and CAP.

"The middle class is more affected than it was before," says Mr Ward of CAP. So professionals and the self-employed are now seeking assistance.

In many cases, the financial cost of the help they receive is minimal – whether it is a second-hand coat or food or debt advice. What often makes the big difference is the organisational skill of the providers and their abilities to give productive help.

Some of the religious charities highlight the contribution that they want their clients to make as well. "There has to be a willingness from the client to resolve the problem," says Mr Ward.

The Trussell Trust tries to ensure that clients are working to improve their situation with their doctor, Citizens Advice Bureau, school, counsellor or whichever agency referred them to the foodbank in the first place.

The Charity Commission's website is a useful way of finding charities that might be able to help. There are over 30,000 religious charities among the 180,000 now on the Commission's register for England and Wales.

The other way to find the charities on the ground is to be part of a network, whether that is a doctor's surgery, school, a JobCentre, church or temple. These organisations often look out for people in trouble and refer them on to the charities they know. If someone is not plugged into a such a network – often the case for single people – then he or she could, for instance, approach the Trussell Trust directly, which would put them in contact with someone who could refer them.

These charities will continue working after the season of goodwill has finished. In fact, November was the busiest month CAP has ever experienced. And the Trussell Trust opened 15 new centres – twice its usual rate – in that month.

They are now gearing up for the tough, post-Christmas season. The second Monday of February is CAP's busiest day for getting new inquiries. "People who are in quite a lot of debt often think that they will get Christmas out of the way first," says Ms Clough.

One of the charities which supports the Trussell Trust is Oxfam, which does relatively little work in the UK but tries to support interesting pioneering ventures here. But Oxfam, currently so involved in famine relief in East Africa, is now getting more worried about its own backyard.

"People are getting much poorer in this country," says a spokeswoman. "Oxfam should not have to help people here. But we will probably be doing more lobbying on that because the problem is getting worse."

Case study

A year ago Gina cancelled Christmas. She had had a terrible year. Struggling to help her sister avoid losing her house, Gina (not her real name) had lent more money than she could afford and went into £22,000 of debt. Now 55, the former nurse felt responsible for the deprivation her husband and 15-year-old autistic son suffered. "It's been a hell of a journey," she says. She lost her job, got breast cancer (from which she has recovered), took out credit cards and used them to tide her over and was told the mortgage had to end. A friend pointed her to Christians Against Poverty for free debt advice. A judge suspended the repossession and the family is still in the house. CAP trained Gina to budget and she is keeping to it and repaying debts. She thanks CAP for the turnaround. This year Christmas is back on.