HUNDREDS of desperate Hartlepool residents have sought help over the past year after racking up debts worth a staggering £14m.
Shocking new figures released by Hartlepool Citizens’ Advice Bureau (CAB), in Park Road, reveal the organisation has helped 1,120 individuals deal with their crippling debt problems over the past 12-months.
The average debt is around £12,500 but staff have dealt with one case where a person had racked up a shocking £280,000 worth of debt.
Last year levels of personal debt stood at £8m but it has risen by £6m in the space of 12-months.
Bosses say high levels of unemployment and redundancies - with 4,414 Jobseekers Allowance claimants in town - is one reason why debt-ridden residents seek help.
But the figures only include those that seek help and some residents will use fee-paying debt management or try to muddle through themselves.
Joe Michna, bureau manager, has called on people to seek help and not “stick their head in the sand”.
The total number of individuals helped by the Hartlepool CAB over the last year was 1,120, with 2,400 debt interviews carried out for new and repeat clients and the total amount of debt was a staggering £14m.
Officials say some people need more than one interview with a debt advice worker and most of the clients need at least two interviews.
The debts that people have racked up include personal bank loans, credit cards, council tax, gas and electricity, payday loans, catalogues, overdrafts and mortgage and rent arrears.
Mr Michna said: “The range of debts is from £3,000 through to the highest we had during the last 12-months which was £280,000.
“The average debt level per individual is about £12,500 and debt problems can bring about a range of problems including relationship breakdowns, depression and mental health problems, gambling and drug addiction.
“Our advice is always to seek advice early before the debt collectors come knocking on the door and before the debts become unmanageable.
“Do not stick your head in the sand and we do not judge people - we are just here to help.”
CAB staff aim to re-arrange and improve debt-ridden clients’ financial affairs by gathering information on a client’s indebtedness, confirming household income, alerting clients to other potential sources of income, and identifying priority debts, for example mortgage and rent arrears, fuel debts and fines.
Once a complete picture of a client’s financial situation has been established, the CAB staff can help to identify the most appropriate option for dealing with the particular client circumstances.
Help on offer includes self-help support packages, negotiations with client creditors, debt relief order applications and bankruptcy applications.
Anyone who is worried about debt problems can drop into the CAB, in Park Road, on Mondays, Wednesdays or Fridays from 9.30am to 3pm.
Further information and advice is also available on the website at www.hartlepool-cab.co.uk
Service fights through its own problems
CITIZENS’ advice chiefs say the past couple of years have been tough for the service but say they are delighted to be still here helping clients.
The debt figures were published in the Hartlepool CAB’s annual report for 2012-13, which runs from April to April and reveals over the past year the service has:
• Advised and assisted with 345 welfare benefit appeals.
• Advised and assisted with 85 employment tribunal claims.
• Helped residents secure financial gains of more than £2m through its work.
It has been a testing period for the Hartlepool CAB after Hartlepool Borough Council withdrew its funding but the service was boosted earlier this week thanks to a £160,000 grant from the Big Lottery Fund over the next three years.
Mr Michna said: “It has been a very tough last 18-months for the bureau and at one stage it looked as though we may not survive because of a significant reduction in our grant income.
“However, the bureau is still here and still providing much needed advice and advocacy services for local residents.
“Our excellent debt advice team have had a very busy year having given either one-off or in-depth help and assistance to more than 900 local families with personal debt problems.
“Another significant part of our work during the year has been advising and assisting people with welfare benefit appeals - mostly related to the employment and support allowance.
“We have literally been overwhelmed with the number of clients looking for help with lodging an appeal and then preparing them for their tribunal hearing.
“Our housing advice and tenancy support service, which is funded by the Northern Rock Foundation, has also had another hectic year helping homeless people find decent and affordable accommodation.”
Mr Michna added: “I would like to thank the very many local people who have supported us through a difficult period and their words of support and encouragement have made all the difference to our morale.”