FAMILY MATTERS: On a mission to help people out of debt

07-0542-1''Credit Cards
07-0542-1''Credit Cards
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RALPH Keene’s job is to help people at their most desperate.

When it’s got the that stage where the repayments for loans, cars, catalogues, credit cards have got too much, Ralph - the centre manager at Christians Against Poverty in Sheffield - steps in.

Unfortunately, it’s a busy job. And the implications go way beyond the empty wallet.

As many as eight out of ten people say their debt problems have a negative impact on their health and personal relationships. To make matters worse, some people have even reported that their financial worries affect their ability to work.

So Ralph and his team at CAP, based at St Thomas’s church in Hillsborough, are in many ways saviours to people facing terrifying financial difficulties.

“In many ways I find my job a great privilege,” says Ralph. “People let me into their homes and share their stories with me and we are able to help them in their situation, they are always happy to see us.”

‘Help’ begins with a detailed assessment of a person’s income and expenses. This is then sent to the CAP head office in Bradford, who then produce a financial plan for the client. “We then set up a CAP account into which the person pays a nominal amount on a regular basis and we start to pay off their debt.”

The statement is approved by the Financial Services Authority (FSA), adhering to the same guidelines that any debt management service would.

Nationally CAP has seen a large influx of people seeking its services in the past three years but locally, in Sheffield, the rise in the number of people using the service, according to Ralph, has been a lot more gradual.

What is surprising, however, is the range of people seeking help.

“I go to five-bedroom houses but equally I can visit people living in near-squalor. The other week I made a visit to a man with an Audi TT on the drive, it was a company car and he was director but the company took a turn for the worse and he couldn’t make the payments he was committed to. Debt affects all walks of life.”

CAP’s advice to people with debt problems and indeed people who want to avoid them, is to cut up credit cards and try and live day-to-day from cash only.

“That way you know what your budget is. But you can’t be too stringent with yourself, you have to sit down and be realistic about what you need each week and stick to it.”

According to Ralph the three most common factors that lead people into debt are relationship breakdowns, loss or reduction of income and health problems.

“But increasingly a fourth factor is people having their benefits cut such as tax credits. If you’re a single mum working part time and you lose out on £50 per week then that’s a big chunk of your wage gone,” says Ralph.

The cost of petrol has also hit families hard.

“People who use a car to travel to work have really been hit hard, or people who need a car to transport disabled children to their hospital appointments have also been hit hard and this has an impact on finances, but a lot of my clients don’t have a car.”

Energy costs are also contributing to people being driven into debt.

“Some of my clients are spending as much as ten per cent of their income on heating and electricity and often the poorer the people the poorer the insulation and damp proofing the accommodation, so it costs more to heat.”

Money management issues also come into it.

“I go to some people’s homes and just see piles of unopened mail. Some clients have bad management - both in their personal lives and with money and St Thomas have volunteers who try and help them with that.”

In these cases, debt is merely a manifestation of a much deeper problem, though equally, debt can be the root of problems as well.

“There was one client who has just broken up with his wife, he was in serious debt and was drinking heavily. When I went to see him he spent most the time in tears. It took a lot of patience but he filed for being bankrupt eventually. As soon as he was declared bankrupt the drinking stopped and he gained employment - his mental health instantly improved. The debt was causing many of his problems.”

The average debt in the UK is £7,504.08, in Yorkshire the figure is slightly higher, £7,950.68. This does not include mortgage debt.

In Sheffield, Ralph’s clients’ debts can range from £2000 to £40 to £50,000.

“We had one person who owed only £2,000, but they were losing sleep over it, so we helped them. The average for our clients though is about £10-12,000.”

Debt is easy to get into, but at least there is help at hand. For information on CAP visit