With a cost of living crisis crippling the country, many households, including those in Fingal, are struggling just to make ends meet.
This week, The Fingal Independent speaks to Gwen Harris, MABS (Money Advice & Budgeting Service) Regional Manager, North Dublin, to hear what the situation is like on the ground for those in distress.
“In one way we have peaks and troughs with calls all the time, with kids in school or off school or when bills come”, Gwen says.
"We would see general peaks and then all of sudden, with the beautiful weather it’s quiet. So there’s a lot of external factors about why people might call, but we have seen what you might say as different people calling.
“We wouldn’t have a trend enough to say that we’re out the door, but we are seeing probably pre-Covid numbers at the moment. If you can imagine during Covid there was a lot of government protection, so we did see a drop in people contacting MABS, so we’re kind of looking now at 2019 figures, the pre-Covid natural pattern.”
Gwen says people are contacting MABS now who have never contacted the service before. There are people, she explains, who may not have debt or “problem debt”, but who are really struggling just to make it to the end of the week.
In general, she says, more people are beginning to worry about the risk of getting into arrears, something which she puts down to general inflation and the rise in the cost of living.
Typically, people would get in touch with MABS regarding problems budgeting and also rent and mortgage arrears and difficulties paying utilities such as gas and electricity.
MABS helps people in these situations in a variety of ways, as Gwen explains: “We have a very defined process because we’re running now for 30 years. So we’d look first of all at people’s income, to make sure they have all their rights and entitlements, the correct taxes, social welfare supports, and then we help them draft a budget and see for themselves if there’s any changes that they can make to help absorb the increase in the cost of living.
“Generally what happens is that people have no changes that they can make, so then we would help them, we would either represent them to their creditors and look for reduced payments or we would support them if they wanted to do the creditor contact themselves. We support them and help them in how to approach creditors to look for a more affordable or sustainable plan for them.”
According to Gwen, solutions might be short-term focused, or something a little longer term, for example, a repayment plan lasting the remainder of a loan term. For those with larger arrears, there are other options: “For people who are dealing with big arrears, we would have a few different options. So we’ve been doing voluntary arrangements, then people have options under insolvency under the Insolvency Act 2012.
"So that might be for someone who has no mortgage and debt below €35,000, MABS processes that themselves, we do that as an organisation, or if someone is dealing with crisis mortgage debt we work with the Insolvency Service of Ireland and with the Legal Aid Board and they can have access to legal advice or a practitioner under the Insolvency Act, and we can arrange for a voucher for free advice to the Abhaile scheme.”
There are three different rent schemes were MABS can be of assistance, Gwen points out. For someone who is living in a council property, MABS can work with the council and come to an arrangement which best suits the needs of the tenant.
MABS also works with HAP (Housing Assistance Payment), where someone is getting assistance to live in private rented accommodation.
And lastly, MABS works with landlords of people who are paying rent fully without any assistance. The priority for the service, Gwen says, is that everyone has “a roof over their head, food on the table, light and heat.” Falling behind that would be loans, credit cards or any secondary bills the client may have.
Gwen says: “One of the biggest impacts that we would see...is that so many people come to us who are so full of guilt and shame about being in debt that they never talked to anybody, they’re keeping this all inside, they’re probably not sleeping or eating properly, their quality of life is totally affected they're so isolated from being in debt.
“When we get feedback from clients, that’s the first thing that they feel, is the relief of support and just knowing that they have someone to help them on a journey. We’re not saying that we're going to fix everything for everybody today, or anybody anytime, but it’s support and guidance and knowing they’re not alone.”