A day in the life of a CAB manager
Written by a Julie Podet, Manager of Dalkeith Citizens Advice Bureau, for the Independent Food Aid Network
The phone at the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) rings again. The caller apologises through her tears. She’s never asked for help before. Her partner lost his job due to the cost-of-living crisis (redundancy) and the couple have two young children to support. Her part-time job doesn’t start to cover the bills. This week, she doesn’t have enough money for food or to top up the electric meter. The other bills are piling up and the thought of making a claim for Universal Credit fills her with anxiety.
Our adviser listens carefully, reassures the caller she’ll try to help. She arranges a phone appointment to work through the issues. In the meantime, she’ll refer the family to the local food bank for emergency assistance as well as for an energy voucher and shopping vouchers for the local supermarket. The triage adviser catches her breath –then the phone rings again.
The intercom doorbell rings in harmony with the office phones – another client in need of help – whose turn is it to go? The Benefits Specialist pushes back his chair, gets up and makes his way to the front door. Another client in crisis – an Adult Disability Payment (ADP) application has been refused and the client needs help to lodge a redetermination as the whole process is so overwhelming.
Emails roll in all day – other agencies referring their service users or clients worrying about meeting their rent for the month.
The manager’s door is rarely closed as staff and volunteers taking endless upsetting client cases might need support (or a chat over a well-earned coffee).
Clients seem much more desperate for face-to-face support and a listening ear. People’s frustrations are boiling over as they are lost and don’t know who to turn to. Often clients and services don’t realise that every single case has to be added to our recording system so we can be audited for advice giving standards. This increases the time spent on each one. Client facing time is followed by endless case recording so we can receive funding and prove to funders why our services are needed. Follow up work - emails, letters, and phone calls - overwhelm staff members already drowning in advice work.
Our CAB receives calls and emails like this all day, every day, from people in or at risk of serious financial hardship. During the last year, Dalkeith CAB helped more than 2,500 Midlothian households with benefits, debt, housing, employment and emergency food and home fuel, and other issues.
This represented a 27% increase in clients from the previous year, including 42% more people facing debt. The legacy of the pandemic and the continuing cost-of-living crisis have taken the greatest toll on those already vulnerable due to job loss, low pay, disability, poor housing and chronic illness. Many reach out to us only when they have become desperate and their problems are entrenched and much harder to resolve.
The CAB provides free, confidential, independent, quality-checked advice and information to people. Our holistic approach helps us identify needs, work with people to resolve their problems and enable clients to manage financial and other matters more effectively – a One Stop Shop Service. We work closely with the local authority, voluntary sector and other local services to ensure clients can access all available help. Unfortunately, funding pressures mean many services have cut back or closed, leaving fewer options for people in need.
CAB has tried to fill the gap with new services including a dedicated triage service, project for older people and an advice, support and well-being group for isolated and marginalised men. We run over 10 weekly advice surgeries in partnership with local pantries, libraries, carers organisation, main food bank and local football club to make our services more accessible to everyone. We now have an outreach clinic based in the community every morning and afternoon of the working week. Still this is not enough to stem the tide of demand.
While increased demand and limited funding place pressure on our CAB, engaging with people day in and day out who are in desperate situations, often in distress, is a huge challenge for our dedicated team of volunteers and staff. Sometimes, the pressure can become almost overwhelming. Staff and volunteer burnout is an issue that will raise its head more and more unless there is a dramatic shift with government approaches to poverty. Staff are advising clients on the same issues they are facing – which is an extremely hard ask for anyone.
Working days become longer as there is so much to do and so many needing help. With few signs of economic recovery on the horizon, it’s increasingly important for long-term adequate funding to advice services just like ours across the country. Statutory, voluntary and private sector organisations music continue to collaborate, share resources and expertise, and involve local people in delivering support at the community level, where it’s most needed and accessible. Friendships develop between different third Sector staff as we appreciate all the issues we are all facing.
Anyway, it's 6pm – quick debrief with my deputy and time to lock up the building for another day. Then home to do all the endless reports from funders who don’t realise just keeping the doors open is a big enough ask.