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CAP warns against simplistic definitions

05 April 2019


CURRENT definitions of vulnerability are “too simplistic” to give proper support to people living in poverty whose needs are multiple and complex, Christians Against Poverty (CAP) has warned in its latest report.

The charity visits more than 8000 households a year who are struggling with debt. Almost 90 per cent of these households are facing one or more additional difficulties, such as a learning or physical disability, mental ill-health, terminal or serious illness, childhood trauma, addiction, unemployment, or single parenting, the report says.

Half the households are facing three or more additional difficulties, and almost a quarter are facing five or more. People with five or more difficulties on top of debt were twice as likely to be unable to afford basic living needs — such as heating, food, toiletries, and rent or mortgage payments — than people without any additional issues, the report says.

More than half (51 per cent) of people in this position had considered suicide.

The report, published last month, is based on a postal and online survey of 1060 of the charity’s debt-help clients between September and November 2017, and case studies of its clients and debt coaches.

In her foreword to the report, the director of external affairs for CAP, Dawn Stobart, writes: “We need to take an all-encompassing view of how household circumstances, ill-health, disability, and personal difficulties, create vulnerability.

“In doing this, we will illuminate the way that multiple factors combine to create situations in which customers have multiple and complex needs. Customers cannot be labelled and placed into silos.”

In 28 per cent of homes visited by CAP, at least one person had a physical disability; in 46 per cent of homes, at least one person was suffering from mental ill-health.

One CAP debt client, Sara, had to leave her job at a bank — where she had been able to access a loan at base rate — after a problem with her spinal cord left her incontinent and unable to walk. She ran into debt and her marriage broke down.

“Suddenly I had lost my job, my husband, and my house.” She was “groomed” by a man she met at the Jobcentre and fell into drugs, she said. “I would self-destruct. I wasn’t eating or turning the heating on for about three or four years.”

Other households included victims of fraud (14 per cent) or abuse (17 per cent), or had experienced family breakdown (18 per cent), and bereavement (22 per cent).

Francella was thrown into debt after her husband died. “I wasn’t expecting to be in debt,” she said. “I was left with everything to pay. I couldn’t keep up with the bills; so I started to borrow money. I really struggled with the grief, and I could never sleep, it was constantly on my mind.”

Gareth, a CAP debt coach in Bradford, said: “Debt is never found in isolation. There are always other things at play. People don’t know where to start; so they bury their heads in the sand.”

The chief executive of CAP, Matt Barlow, said that “lowering the bar” when defining vulnerability was causing people who were “truly desperate” to be overlooked. Organisations needed to consider the risks, dynamics, complexity, and duration of vulnerability.

“For instance, some utility companies would regard all households with a child under five as vulnerable, which, in many cases, will be a world away from someone in poor mental health with a terminal illness who has learning difficulties and is haunted by childhood trauma.

“The reality is, the most vulnerable people are suffering in multiple ways, and the challenge for customer-facing teams — whether in a public sector or a commercial setting — is to recognise them and have appropriately trained teams with the compassion and time to truly help.”

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