This is a picture of staff and volunteers at Hastings Advice and Representation Centre

Advice in extraordinary times

The benefits system can be incredibly challenging to navigate and an estimated £10 billion in benefits to which people are entitled goes unclaimed each year, according to Government figures[i]. The Hastings Advice and Representation Centre offers free advice and advocacy to local people and, in the year ending last March 2020, they secured £4.8 million in previously unclaimed, enhanced or reinstated benefits. 

One of those was Mrs Phillips who called the HARC helpline in April 2020, in the middle of the national lockdown.  It quickly became apparent that she had learning difficulties and mental health problems.  HARC specialist adviser, Lorraine Guy, managed to piece together her situation which was that she turned pension age in early January 2020.  Her employment support allowance had stopped, as she now needed to claim her state retirement pension. Housing and council tax benefits had also stopped, as a result.  She didn’t know what to do or how to go about accessing help. Her only income was disability living allowance of £94 every four weeks.

Mrs Phillip’s rent hadn’t been paid for months and she was now in arrears. She had received no support from statutory agencies and was falling through the gaps. Somehow, she had made her way to HARC helpline but, with the new covid restrictions and her additional communication needs, it was going to be a difficult case to crack.

Her immediate safety and wellbeing was Lorraine’s first concern so she contacted Bexhill foodbank to organise food parcels to be delivered to her. She also tried to claim Mrs Phillips’s state pension online but was unable to prove identity on her behalf and so had to send her forms to sign and return. Despite Lorraine remaining in contact with Mrs Phillips and trying to support her step-by-step, Mrs Phillips felt overwhelmed and did not return the paperwork.

Lorraine continued to call and write to her but she was becoming increasingly unwell and felt unable to deal with any of the issues she was facing.  Finally, in July after considerable support and encouragement, HARC managed to conduct a telephone interview and Lorraine was able to make an online claim for housing and council tax benefits, on Mrs Phillip’s behalf. She contacted her housing association, regarding the arrears and explained the situation to them. They agreed to put the impending court eviction proceedings on hold to give us time to sort everything out.

Once again, Mrs Phillips seemed to fall off the radar. She was unable to deal with the complexity of the telephone communications and was not opening her post, due to increasing anxiety. She needed the one thing we couldn’t provide – a face-to-face meeting. Eventually, as restrictions eased somewhat and Mrs Phillips felt able to engage again, Lorraine arranged for her to come into the office. Her relief was palpable. She brought piles of paperwork with her, as she was unable to determine what was important. Everything the advisors needed was there and HARC finally got her state retirement pension and pension credit in pay.

“I was able to sort out her council tax reduction and request backdated housing benefit to when it had been stopped in January,” says Lorraine. “Rent arrears of £3,579 were finally cleared and she was no longer facing homelessness.”

“Normally, I would have arranged to visit Mrs Philips at home in April, where I would have had access to the documents I needed and forms could have been signed. But these are extraordinary times and they call for careful and considered support.”

“When Mrs Phillips first contacted our helpline, we made a commitment to her. HARC would do everything within our power to support her, until her issues were resolved and all benefits were in payment. It took a long time but we got there in the end – together!”

Sussex Community Foundation has funded HARC almost £11,000 to keep their services running during the coronavirus pandemic.

[i] https://www.moneysavingexpert.com/news/2018/11/over-p10-billion-of-benefits-left-unclaimed/

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