My name is Jaki and I work for Citizens Advice Wokingham as a Community Adviser — yesterday the Citizens Advice service celebrated its 80th anniversary. This is an insight into my work.
My role is a relatively new one, the Project having started in late May 2019. It is a 12- month, 15 hours per week pilot project, funded by Wokingham United Charities.
The project’s focus is on 2 (of 3) priority areas for Wokingham United Charities: — St Sebastian’s (Wokingham Without) and Gorse Ride South.
The aim of the Project is to take the Citizens Advice service, and the support it can offer, to the community, supporting and empowering individuals and their families to resolve, or better manage, any issues or concerns they have. The support offered is wide ranging and includes advice and guidance in relation a wide range of subjects, including benefits, work, debt and money, consumer issues, housing, family and relationships, immigration, health, etc.
There are many reasons why people are unable, or do not wish to, access or visit our Citizens Advice offices in (Wokingham or Woodley) town centre and these reasons can often be more complex than, say, just a lack of appropriate transport.
For instance, whilst it would appear than most people are aware of Citizens Advice as an organisation, many are not necessarily aware that it is a charity, completely independent from local or national government —so I find myself constantly stressing to clients that we are not part of Wokingham Borough Council!
So, it is important for people to understand that, not being part of any government agency, we can provide FREE, impartial, confidential advice, support and guidance on a significant range and level of topics and concerns, including on council issues. For example, an issue which is very common for lots of clients is Council tax arrears. In addition, for many clients, Council Tax arrears often go hand in hand with additional debt issues.
You may recall that my colleague, Sue, recently wrote an article outlining her role as Debt Adviser and Lead on Our Council Tax Arrears Project? Well, part of my role is to identify clients who may benefit from Sue’s debt advice and/or from the monthly Council Tax Arrears Project Drop-in. One such client was someone who initially presented concerned about a letter, from the Council, threatening court action due to rent arrears. However, upon further exploration, it became evident that this client also had significant other debts, including Council Tax. With the clients permission, I was able to liaise the same day with the local authority, resulting in court proceedings being halted and the council moving the client to a smaller home (a priority for the client and something that they had been trying to achieve for some time) a few weeks later. The local authority also agreed to provide the client with transitional (financial) support in the interim of the move and, in their new home, the client’s new rent was significantly reduced by 96%. In addition, the client continued to receive additional debt management support and advice, via our Council Tax Drop-in, from my debt colleagues and the Local Authority working in partnership,
When clients contact us directly for support, they are often very clear about the issue, or issues, they would like support with. However, for other clients, as I mentioned earlier, there are many reasons why they feel unable, or do not want, to contact Citizens Advice direct (for example, cost, lack of confidence, previous negative experience with an agency when seeking support, feeling depressed or overwhelmed, language or literacy issues, to name a few).
Therefore, the value and benefit of offering a community drop-in is huge. Clients can come and meet with me (or the volunteers that will be working with me in due course) in a safe, confidential setting and discuss any concerns or issues they may have.
Once we have had an initial chat, I explain how Citizens Advice works and complete the necessary paperwork (e.g. “Client Permission and Consent Form” and, often, a “Form of Authority”, if it is likely that I, or my colleagues, may need to speak to a third party on the client’s behalf) before undertaking an assessment.
The Assessment is a detailed exploration and record (adhered to by all Citizens Advisers) of the client’s individual circumstances, their goals, priorities and any urgent issues (e.g. priority debts). This ensures the client receives the best possible information and support to suit their individual needs.
Quite often, this assessment process highlights additional issues of concern that the client may have previously not been aware of —these issues may, or may not, be related to their original, presenting issue or issues.
For example, a client I was involved in supporting had originally thought their issue related to rent arrears. However, upon further discussion and exploration, it was evident that there was additional but related benefit, council tax arrears and, possibly, eviction and discrimination issues that we were able to support the client with.
Sometimes, clients just need to talk about their issues and concerns. Having the opportunity to talk, and perhaps, the client reassured by an adviser that they have done (or are doing) the right thing is all that is required (the saying “a problem shared is a problem halved” comes to mind and it if often true!).
The important thing is that Citizens Advice is there when clients need us, offering a non-judgemental, listening ear and high quality, confidential and impartial information and guidance.
Whether the client chooses to act upon that information or not (with the exception to safeguarding concerns), is their choice.
I am thrilled to be part of this new Community Project and being given the opportunity to empower more people in our community to receive the impartial support, guidance and help that they need.
So, I would like to encourage people to contact us (or your local Citizens Advice), even if you are not sure we can help. If we can’t help you directly, we will know someone who can and will signpost, or refer, you on accordingly!
Drop- in and contact details for the Community Project are as follows:
Monday mornings, 9.30–11.30am at The Community House, 17 Billing Avenue, Gorse Ride South RG40 4JE
Monday afternoons, 12midday — 2pm at The Vineyard Church, 25 Wellington Business Park, Dukes Ride, Crowthorne RG45 6LS
So, if you, or anyone you know, need any help please drop in between these times.
Alternatively, you can book an appointment or obtain further information about the support on offer by:
Telephone: 0300 330 1189 (if calling, please mention Jaki, Community Support)
(I am currently in the process of setting up a venue in St Sebastian’s. Details of this will be made available in due course)