By Sian Bayley
More than 5,000 people have needed help and advice from Citizens Advice Wandsworth during the coronavirus pandemic.
The charity reported a sharp rise in people experiencing hardship and crisis between April and September this year.
Valentina Di Maso, 29, was working as a restaurant manager in Fulham before the first lockdown, when her shift was suddenly cancelled.
“After that they just basically disappeared on me, they didn’t say anything, no more news,” she said.
She was living in Wandsworth with four friends, but two decided to go back to Italy as travel restrictions began to be imposed.
“So basically they left me and another girl paying £2000 more or less for a flat,” said Valentina.
“I was so desperate and I said ‘I have no idea what to do now’.”
Fortunately a friend advised her to contact Citizens Advice who helped her to apply for Universal Credit, as well as sort out her housing issues and get help for her mental health.
“I was completely desperate, even a little bit, you know, depressed because I said ‘I don’t have a job’ and I had no idea how long these things will last,” she said.
Citizens Advice were able to help her to send an email to her landlord asking for a rent discount.
She was able to negotiate a 25 per cent discount, but still had to pay “six to seven hundred pounds a month”, with bills on top.
Under Universal Credit, she was only able to receive £590.
She said she had some savings, and the discount helped, but she eventually decided to stay with friends in Birmingham for a few months to find a new job.
“I think that Citizens Advice helped me a lot,” she said.
“They helped me through the process.”
Valentina now has a job working in a factory in Birmingham and lives in a new flat.
“Everything was a little bit stressful. But now I’m really positive. I’m feeling much better,” she said.
Valerie Bassigny, 45, was told in March that she was going to be made redundant from her role in the events industry, and approached Citizens Advice Wandsworth for legal advice.
“I very quickly grasped the enormity of the matter, which is having no job means no revenue stream,” said Valerie.
“I needed to be able to pay my rent and my bills, to be able to keep a roof over my head.”
Due to the complexity of her situation, she was then referred to the South West London Law Centres.
Since then, she has been trying to find another job, and recently applied for Job Seekers Allowance.
Valerie has been working in the events industry for 20 years, but coronavirus has shut down most of the sector.
“There are hardly any events in the industry anymore, it is in an induced coma. It doesn’t happen. There are no face-to-face events going on,” said Valerie.
“The industry is not employing because there’s no work. So that’s obviously a big concern, because I can’t wait, you know, for a few weeks or a couple of months for it to happen, because realistically that’s not going to come back to life for another eight, nine, ten months at the very earliest, and therefore I literally can’t afford to wait.”
Valerie is now hoping to transition into a new career, and has taken a course in project management to formalise her previous experience.
In their report, ‘6 months in: The impact of coronavirus on our clients’, Citizens Advice Wandsworth has looked in detail at the issues they have advised on during the coronavirus period.
They say they have advised significantly more local people who are experiencing hunger and destitution compared with the same period last year.
“We are supporting many clients who are struggling to pay for basic needs like a roof over their head and food on the table’’ says the charity’s Chief Executive, Mary-Ann Foxwell.
“Many of the people who have contacted us during the pandemic have not used our services before and have no experience of social welfare support – including what benefits are available.
‘’But once lockdown is over we anticipate a continued rise in need amongst local people as the economic impact of the pandemic continues to bite. In particular rising unemployment, growing debt and the probable decline of government support are likely to lead to increased hardship and evictions.’’
Pictured: Valentina Di Maso, left, was advised by Citizens Advice Wandsworth after losing her job.
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