Before I start I just want to say Thank you to everyone who has been reading my blog, especially to all those who have taken the time to comment. Thankyou for all the kind words of support and encouragement. I love having the opportunity to write, but I must admit I never really expected anyone else to want to read it. Some of your comments have got me through many a bad week, so thank you, your words count more than you realise.
Today I want to write a bit more about CAP and what we do. I realise I’ve got a little sidetracked of late and haven’t told you very much about what my job involves and why we do what we do. The department I work for is called the ‘Creditor Liaison Unit’ (or CLU for short because its a bit of a mouthful). As the name suggests we are the team that works directly with the creditors, we have very little client contact. The debt we handle in CLU is all what’s called secondary debt, that means it’s not secured against anything and you cannot go to prison for not paying it, and includes things like credit cards, most loans and bank debt. The main part of all our jobs is processing the volume of post that comes into CLU, sent in from both the creditors and forwarded from the clients. Last year we dealt with over 200,000 pieces of post, it’s not very glamorous but it is essential. Whether the client is able to repay their debt or they have to pursue insolvency (bankruptcy is one type of insolvency), we communicate with the creditors on the client’s behalf. We set up payment plans, negotiate to stop excessive interest and charges, and fairly distribute the client’s money to each of their creditors. We’re not talking small scale either, last year CLU handled an average of £69 million per month of secondary debt.
I think what I love about CLU is that we stand in the brink, in between the clients and the creditors. We have the ever present challenge of trying to get a fair deal for the creditors, whilst protecting our clients and releasing them from the burden of constant letters and phone calls. For me CLU is where love and justice meet. Some days the love part is easy, when you read some of the notes on the client’s file and see what a difficult time they’ve had. Other times when you’re unable to do your job because a client isn’t sending in the paperwork, it can be harder. I think it can also be too easy to demonise creditors, assume they are these horrible people who set out to ensnare people. But often the reality is they are just people and companies who offer a service, expecting to be paid, we have a good relationship with most of them. At the end of the day most of the time the client has taken out the credit with full knowledge of the potential consequences, we have to do our best to honour the creditors and try to get their money back. At the same time there has to be justice for our clients who find themselves crippled by debt, completely unable to find their way out. Whatever the decisions were that got them into debt, everyone deserves a second chance. There has to be justice on both sides.
I know for some people when it comes to those in debt, they can have an attitude of “why should I help? They’ve got themselves into that mess in the first place”. For them, debt is seen as something purely self-inflicted and avoidable, and therefore not their problem. Maybe you’re thinking: If only people had a good handle on their finances then there would be no debt? I am afraid it is just not that simple. Whilst some of our clients do get into debt simply because of an inability to budget, it is rarely the only reason.
The first problem we face is that our society functions on credit. We use it to buy our houses, or take it out in the form of credit cards. The Centre for Social Justice reported in 2010 that the average UK household has debts of £54,000. Like it or not credit is often the currency of our nation, far more than pounds and pence. This does not mean that everyone will end up with unmanageable debt, in theory if you an keep up with repayments you should stay in the clear. However, it does mean that often all it can take is a slight change of circumstances, for someone’s finances to slip out of control. And once you fall behind on payments, the interest and charges can be so punishing that it can be easy to slip further and further into debt, until you find yourself in a hole you can’t climb out of.
The second problem we have to confront is the widespread poverty across the UK. We like to think that poverty is something reserved for nations less fortunate than ours. I found that when I told people I was going to work for Christians Against Poverty, people would assume we were combating poverty abroad. But the reality is, whether because of low wages or unemployment, there will be parents today across the UK, who will be skipping meals so there children can have the little food they can afford. There will be people having to decide whether they pay their electricity bill or buy food for the week. And with rising energy prices and the difficult economic climate, more and more families will find themselves in this position. There will be cupboards in many homes bare of food, families facing eviction or taking out more and more credit just to survive.
Once who find yourself in debt, it can be a deep and dark hole. Many of our clients will have been forced to shut the curtains and stop answering the door to avoid bailiffs, with constant phone calls and ready supply of threatening letters. Can you imagine the stress and pressure? How hopeless you would feel knowing you couldn’t repay, unable to see a future, or a way to climb out? Under the weight of this pressure and hopelessness, 36% of our clients say they were suicidal before coming to CAP. There will be mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, friends and neighbours, who today will be feeling so completely trapped and desperate, that they will be considering ending their own lives. We cannot simply do nothing.
This problem is bigger than us. It’s bigger than the 220 plus staff we have at head office, it’s bigger than our centre network, it’s even bigger than all the thousands of supporters, partner churches and volunteers. It’s bigger than CAP, because it’s all about God’s heart for the poor. Jesus himself declared:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” Luke 4:18-19
God calls us to ‘Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy’ (Proverbs 31:9). And that is what we try to do at CAP, I know we won’t always get it right. But our mission will always be to reach those who find themselves in that pit of debt, and to do all we can to help them to climb out. To show them there is a hope and a solution, and a God who loves them completely. Last year we helped 1808 households become debt free. We are giving the church a relevant way to help their communities, empowering them to bring freedom and hope, to the people society forgets.
So this is where I’m working, at a place where love and justice meet. No, it is not easy, and has been some of the most challenging few months of my life. But every time I feel frustrated, every time it feels like I’ll never hit my fundraising target (only £200 to go but somehow still feels out of reach), every time I miss my friends and family down south; I can remind myself that the work I’m doing really does make a difference. There are people across the country who wouldn’t be here without our work, families who have found freedom and are able to enjoy life again, couples facing a bright future together instead of apart. These people are worth fighting for.