Jean Simango became Head of Advice Services at Citizens Advice Elmbridge West last month. Here she tells us more about her role, how they are bracing for the effects of the energy crisis, and why she would like to see more affordable housing locally.
You have recently taken over as Head of Advice Services, what were you doing before you started the role?
I was a volunteer with Citizens Advice but have worked as a nurse and paralegal.
What is your favourite part of the job so far?
Being part of a group of people who are geared to help. It is rewarding to know we are making a difference in somebody’s life when they feel they have nowhere to turn.
Citizens Advice play a vital role locally, how challenging was it to continue providing your service during the pandemic?
When the pandemic hit, I was working as a volunteer on the Advice Line. We were all working from home which meant we could keep the lines open but it was a real challenge for the clients who weren’t able to contact us over the phone or by email. They were left with no way of getting in touch.
What are the main enquiries you are receiving at the moment?
The most common enquiries we receive are about benefits, debt, housing, employment and Universal Credit.
Has Covid-19 changed the kind of enquiries you receive?
Not really. I feel the pandemic has only exacerbated the issues and widened the inequality gap. With the end of the energy price cap and high inflation we are seeing at the moment, we can only see this gap widening further.
The people we are meeting who have been impacted by Covid-19 have often experienced loss of employment or an upheaval to their finances. We have also seen an increase in relationship breakdowns. This has impacted people from a financial, family and mental health perspective.
People are often surprised to learn that so many people in Elmbridge (particularly children) are living in poverty. Why do you think people don’t know it is a problem?
Elmbridge is often seen as a wealthy borough and lots of people make the assumption that all residents are well off. This makes it hard to address the pockets of poverty that do exist. And often people don’t want to come forward and talk about their situation.
There has been a sharp increase in living costs (food, fuel etc) recently. Are you seeing an effect on people locally?
Yes and no. Covid is still masking what will be the real issues when they do eventually surface. As I mentioned, with the energy cap coming to an end we foresee a huge increase in demand for our services. We are hoping to find ways to address these issues before they become emergencies.
Availability of affordable housing in Elmbridge is an ongoing problem, with house prices and average rents around double that of the national average. What challenges does this present for people locally?
The availability of social housing is a real problem. And people worry about not being able to stay in the borough if there is no suitable housing. When rents keep increasing, there are less affordable rental properties available, which pushes people out of Elmbridge. Since April 2021, we have received 455 housing-related enquiries, a 25% increase on the previous year. Most of these are about renting or rented properties.
What is the biggest change you would like to see locally?
More affordable housing for a start. I would also like to see more support for local charities and for our local shops.