Shelter Lancashire: our specialist debt and benefits advice service

Shelter Lancashire: our specialist debt and benefits advice service

Over the last few years, demand for housing advice has dramatically risen in Lancashire. Three years ago, Shelter’s Blackburn based service was seeing around eight people a day, now they see around 68 people a day. This year, on average, 10 people experiencing homelessness come to Shelter Lancashire every week looking for advice, compared to one or two in the years before.

We are currently the only housing specialist in Lancashire and we’ve only seen the hardships that people who live here face intensify over the past five years. One of the starkest examples of the surge in housing pressure is an ONS report that highlited the higher death rate of homeless people in towns such as Blackburn.

The report said: ‘The highest estimated rates of deaths of homeless people, relative to the total population of each area, included some smaller towns such as Blackburn with Darwen.’

As Emma Garner, Shelter Lancashire Hub Manager, explains: ‘Places like Blackburn or Lancashire don’t get mentioned that much in such big reports…but our stats locally are high because of the housing issues, because of the debt problems and benefit problems as well.’

Specialist debt and benefits advice

All of this led to the establishment of a specialist debt and benefits advice service in Lancashire, which was subcontracted out to Shelter. The service has been running for a few years and demand for it has only increased in that time.

Universal Credit was rolled out in Blackburn in February 2018, which led to Blackburn and Darwen Borough Council paying for an additional adviser to support the roll out. This allowed for the debt and benefits service to be expanded. ‘Because this contract was so successful, they paid us additional money to go and be based at the Jobcentre every day.’ Emma adds. ‘We’ve done that the last 18 months to support people with Universal Credit, to support people applying for it and what happens afterwards.’

Shelter Lancashire now runs a drop in at the Blackburn Job Centre with specialist housing, debt and benefit advisers and solicitors available. They help with a wide range of housing issues including people facing eviction for rent arrears, homelessness, problems accessing benefits and Discretionary Housing Payment (DHP). ‘We help people apply for DHP, which they need and they wouldn’t know about if we weren’t there to help them,’ Emma says. If the client has legal trouble, the service can also pass clients through to a court desk where a duty solicitor can assist while an adviser continues to help them with their debts in the meantime.

Supporting people in crisis

‘If we weren’t at the Job Centre, people would be in more crisis than they are at the moment,’ Emma says, going on to explain that they are lessening the impact of housing problems on their clients’ mental health too. ‘There are still a lot of people in crisis situations and they’re not getting to us as quickly as we would like them to, to lessen the impact on them financially, but also mentally as well. Because we are at the Jobcentre we can capture a few people sooner [so] that’s a few more people helped.’

Shelter Lancashire also give out food bank vouchers, demand for which has increased in Blackburn. ‘From my experience of doing this kind of work for the last 20 years, the reliance on food banks has sky-rocketed,’ Emma says.

Huge impact

The impact of this service has been significant for Shelter’s clients. ‘If we weren’t here, if we weren’t supporting people…like I said before – we have so many people coming to us in crisis situations,’ Emma says. ‘We’re doing a lot more safeguarding and supporting people with ill health, mental ill-health, drug and alcohol problems than we’ve ever had before. But if we weren’t here, there are no support services in the Blackburn or Lancashire area that offer what we offer.’

If you need debt and benefit advice from Shelter Lancashire then you can call 0344 515 1831 or visit us Blackburn Central Library, Town Hall St, Blackburn, BB2 1AG or at Blackburn Jobcentre Plus.

Shelter Lancashire is here to help anyone with a housing problem. If you want to find out more about the advice we offer than visit our website.