Sunderland struggling with new benefit changes, say advice chiefs

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CONFUSED Wearsiders are struggling to cope with changes to the benefits system introduced just days ago.

Advice agencies in the city say they are responding to a growing number of calls from those now battling “to keep a roof over their heads.”

But the organisations themselves are finding it difficult to meet increasing demands due to cuts which have forced them to slash services.

Sunderland’s Citizens Advice Bureau has lost £200,000 – half its annual funding and is now fighting to help some of the city’s poorest residents with a much-reduced budget

The organisation, which takes up to 2,000 calls a month, says that since April 1 they are getting a higher volume of calls than ever before.

Denise Irving, deputy manager for Citizens Advice Sunderland, said: “We’ve had a number of Bedroom Tax inquiries where clients are concerned they will not be able to meet the increased costs.

“We’ve advised several to claim discretionary housing payments to cover short term issue connected with this, for example a client who wants to move into a smaller property and is doing all they can to enable this but has not got anywhere to go yet.

“In another case we had a client who was severely disabled and affected by the Bedroom Tax and we advised on discretionary housing payments and their rights to a room for a carer.”

The Coalition argues the Bedroom Tax will mean an end to taxpayers subsidising people who live in houses with more bedrooms than they need.

Sunderland social landlord Gentoo says the move will cost those household effected an average of £663 per year.

Ms Irving added: “There are more big changes to the welfare system coming this year, and we’re concerned that a lot of people still don’t know yet what will happen or how it will affect them.

“People need a lot of support and information to cope and we’re expecting a huge influx of those struggling to manage the change.

“Problems with benefits are the most common problems that we see.

“Every day we speak to people who are struggling to keep a roof over their heads or put food on the table as wage squeezes, price rises and benefit cuts wreak havoc on household budgets.”

Changes to Council Tax payments are also leading to concerns.

Ms Irving said: “We’re finding that clients are shocked to discover that although they were previously exempt they now have to pay something towards their Council Tax.”

With Universal Credit set to radically change the way claimants in Sunderland receive benefits, agencies are concerned this week’s calls may only be the tip of the iceberg.

Dorothy Gardiner, from Sunderland Mind, said they were bracing themselves for an influx of client concerns.

She added: “We’re preparing for more people to make appointments with us in the coming months.”