By Fiona Hutmacher, IAG Advisor
It has now been a good couple of weeks with not so happy headlines. Energy bills are said to go up by 50%, at least. Food prices are rising by 5%. The inflation rate is high and the increase in National Insurance is about to hit us. All of this whilst we are still suffering from the effects from a pandemic, and now dreading the consequences of the Russian invasion in Ukraine.
We — the Information, Advice and Guidance Team at Nova New Opportunities (Nova), a charity in London — are used to bad news. Our clients come to us with a variety of complex needs, and we provide support when things go wrong and life is tough. We help people who lost their jobs, are facing homelessness, have survived domestic violence, and are struggling with their mental and physical health and disabilities. What the increase in energy bills and food prices will do to our clients, who are struggling as it is, is something we don’t really dare to think about and it keeps us up at night.
Nova is based in North Kensington, a place where the very rich and the very poor co-exist and rarely have meaningful interactions. At Nova we believe dialogue between different groups of people is important and that society can only change and improve if the more privileged get a better understanding of what it means to belong to the category most in need. We hear stories of people in difficult situations every day, and here are three examples.
(All names have been changed to guarantee anonymity and to respect our clients’ privacy.)
Anna is a new client at Nova. She is a survivor of domestic violence and has recently been re-homed in the process of escaping her perpetrator. She suffers from complex PTSD linked to her experience of domestic abuse and a variety of physical health problems (heart problems, bypass patient, high blood pressure, neurological issues to name a few). She also has special dietary requirements and needs to be able to cook her meals according to a meal plan. On top of these (overwhelming) underlying issues, Anna is confronted with more imminent practical problems. The flat the council provided her with initially had no functioning heating, gas, electricity, or hot water. The new home is also not properly insulated and there is a lot of draught which makes it extremely difficult and expensive to keep the place warm. The home is also fitted with a pre-paid meter meaning that Anna needs to keep topping it up to not be cut off from electricity and gas. It also means she pays a higher tariff than she would with a normal meter. When Anna runs out of money to top up her meter, she can’t keep her home and herself warm. Because of her neurocardiogenic pre-condition, such sudden drops in temperature dangerously affect her health and can trigger unconsciousness. Without gas, Anna can also not cook meals according to her dietary requirements.
Aron has had kidney problems alongside countless other physical and mental health issues, including severe learning difficulties. His health condition has prevented him from ever getting into employment. He never got any assistance in applying for increased benefits and his financial situation is dire, as he has accumulated bills and debts on all sides. For about half a year Aron has been living with bedbugs. As he doesn’t have a washing machine, he can’t get the required treatment. Because Aron is somehow/somewhere classified as an adult capable of living unsupported, we have, until this date, not been able to access help, despite several referrals to his housing association and social services. Aron receives benefits every two weeks but some of his bills (e.g. his water bill) are set on a monthly direct debit (it’s not always possible to synchronise the days you have to pay a bill with the day you receive benefits). For the last two months, Aron did not have enough money left on his account to pay his water bill. He was desperate and tried to exchange a food voucher into cash to be able to pay his water bill.
Thea works as a hospital cleaner. She has health issues that she manages, including a reduced immune system. In order to manage her health, she tries to eat as healthily as possible. Her monthly income is low, and she has been able to get by month to month.
However, recently she has found that with the small amount of salary and Universal Credit she receives, it can be difficult to budget throughout the month. She has been affected by increases to food and energy bills. A key factor is due to a combination of an existing fuel debt and having to use a key meter for her energy to repay part of the debt as she tops up. She has noticed that her energy top-ups are not going as far as they had in the same period last year. To control the issue as best she can, she relies on only lighting one room and where possible not heating the property, although this has been a tough winter.
Last month, due to an error in her income reported to HMRC by her employer, she received an incorrect Universal Credit payment. Thea has now gone into rent arrears with her landlord and is forced to cut back on other areas such as food and fuel to make up for the rental shortfall. This is something Thea has been able to do in the short term, however she is acutely aware, that her situation will worsen considerably in the coming months. She has been assisted in negotiating with her energy supplier and with small grants and foodbank support, however the size of the increase in fuel costs and her current income level means that she will go into additional debt.
At Nova we recognise that there is no easy fix to Thea, Aron and Anna’s problems but we give it our very best to improve their situations. We call, listen, motivate, advocate, negotiate and co-ordinate with and on behalf of our clients and never ever give up. We believe that by working together, we can build a world that is better for everyone. Join us by choosing one (or all!) actions you can do today:
1. Volunteer with us
We have exciting volunteer opportunities all year round and an open-door information event taking place Monday the 28th of March, 6pm. Come along to find out how you can get involved to support the community. RSVP for the event to firstname.lastname@example.org
2. Lobby your MP
Address your concerns regarding the increase in energy and food bills in a letter to your MP; here is what you need to know!
3. Become a Super Nova
For the price of your daily coffee you can help us help those most in need. We are very happy to welcome you on our Super Nova scheme, be it with a one-off payment or regular monthly donations.
4. Spread the word and never miss a Nova event
Thank you for your support and believing in a better future.
Your Team at Nova