DERRY and Strabane is in the midst of a social and economic emergency due to the ongoing health crisis, local advice services are warning, with more problems looming as support mechanisms cease and the full impact on business begins to emerge.
Local advice service providers have been at the forefront of the major effort to support local communities and recently this has meant stepping up services by extending hours and increasing resources to meet the surge in demand.
With proposed reductions to the Department for Communities Draft Budget for 2021-22 now out for consultation, the independent advice sector could see a £1.5m funding cutback at a critical time for its services.
The city's three leading advice providers have now issued an urgent call for sustained support and warned that cuts will directly impact on the most vulnerable in our society as escalating pressures threaten to overwhelm services.
Council's Governance and Strategic Planning Committee agreed to draw up a submission regarding the DfC draft budget highlighting the detrimental impact that the £1.5m reduction will inevitably have.
The Health and Community Committee last week added its comments for inclusion in a comprehensive response being prepared by council to the consultation, stressing that the non-award of funding to support the independent advice sector would have an immediate and extremely negative impact within the district.
In the current financial year £112,000 has been awarded by council via the Community Support Programme to Advice North West, Dove House and the Resource Centre, who are now working evenings and weekends just to keep up with demand.
A further £16,500 was approved by members of the Health and Community Committee from council's Hardship Funding to bolster services.
Advice NW is the largest of the three local advice bodies, where Jacqueline Gallagher manages a team of experienced advisors who provide information on a range of issues including rights in the workplace, benefit maximisation, debt advice, financial health checks, budgeting information, advice on savings and affordable credit.
They have seen a surge in demand over recent months, and anticipate that this will only escalate as the furlough scheme comes to an end and lenders become less lenient regarding debt recovery.
Advice NW has had to adapt to the changing work environment imposed by COVID, which has made providing a personal service much more difficult.
At Dove House staff are deeply invested in the local community, which has been taking its toll on the advice team emotionally as they fulfil a counselling role as well as an advisory one, with many customers approaching them in emotional distress.
Donna Burke said that her team is dealing with a much higher number of cases involving anxiety and depression as a result of COVID-19.
The Resource Centre has faced similar pressures as it has tried to meet the increase in customers new to the benefit system.
Jude McKinney is advice manager at the centre and he explained that as well as a significant rise in new claims, there is a massive backlog of disability and incapacity appeals clogging up the system and holding up support for people in need.