Ewan Aitken: Help available to those drowning in debt

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To be homeless is a very traumatic experience. So at Cyrenians, as well as walking with those who have reached that tough reality, we try to help folk before they end up there.

That’s a tough call in itself because what we know from our 46 years in this work is that anyone can be at risk of homelessness, including those who own their homes.

I heard this week of the story of one of our customers who had come very close to losing the house he’d owned for 20 years after the breakdown of his marriage and he faced taking on the mortgage payments in full whist still a student, (he was in his final year of his PHD and trying to finish off his thesis). With our help he avoided that disaster but it was a close call, not just because of the money but because of the impact the threat of losing his house had on our client.

He needed much more than help to sort out his financial situation. He needed legal help. He needed clear advice on what his housing options were. He needed support managing his money. His student funds were not enough to take over the mortgage payments. He needed employment to save his home and this pressure was having a huge effect on his mental and emotional wellbeing.

His confidence was very low and he appeared very pessimistic of his future. However, once he started accessing services his confidence began to improve. Through our employability support programme he managed to secure employment and enrolled onto a course which secured him bursary funding. With financial advice he managed to take over full mortgage payments on new terms. He began to access support for his mental and emotional wellbeing through counselling and engaging with his GP. Through securing the offer of a mortgage he was in a stronger position to negotiate through a solicitor a divorce settlement and finally have the property transferred back into his name.

Last year, over ten per cent of our homeless prevention service cases were with homeowners. That’s grown from three per cent five years ago. This is for lots of reasons; the recession, big mortgages in good times then redundancy, ill health, relationship break-up and much more. The threat of losing your home can make an already difficult situation seem impossible. Sadly, the stigmatisation of homelessness is a further challenge.

We know that the first step of asking for help is often as traumatic as the fear of losing your home. Yet asking is often the first step to a better place. It’s ok to ask for help to save your home, owned or rented. No matter where or why your problem began.

• Ewan Aitken is chief executive of the Cyrenians, www.cyrenians.org.uk/what_we_do/hps/