Support without judgement for people paying off debt

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A word from our CEO, Brad Webb:

Have you ever received a parking fine when you didn’t read the sign properly? Or have you ever forgotten to vote?

These are just a couple of ways you can accrue state debt. When everything else in life is running smoothly, such situations are frustrating. But what happens when you are already struggling to make ends meet and a fine arrives? What if it’s a choice to pay the fine or feed your children? For some, the fines accrue interest and the debt adds up.

Samaritans staff member, Judy, is Samaritans Caseworker for Work and Development Orders (WDOs).

WDOs are a way that people can work off state debts by volunteering, rather than paying money. The NSW Government was the first state to introduce such a scheme, realising there were some people who could not pay their debts. These people might be experiencing homelessness, have been in prison, have a serious addiction to drugs and or alcohol, a disability or be in economic hardship.

Samaritans has been supporting people to pay off their debt since 2012. Six years on Samaritans has collectively supported over 670 people to work off a debt of more than $1.7 million dollars.

Judy has a passion for her job and certainly has some stories to share. I invited her to share her thoughts and experiences in her role.

“I’ve seen how debt can effect people. It can happen to anyone but it often puts extra burden on already difficult lives.

People bring in their timesheets each month and I then enter it in the State Debt Database and immediately I can see the debt dropping and I know how much this means to the people we work with. I get joy from the changes they make in their lives.

I have my hand shaken so often and get so many hugs. People are frightened. They think they have no options. It’s not me that’s changing anything but I am a link to options.

I supported one young man who had been homeless. Samaritans got him accommodation and he was looking for a job. He had state debt so was sent my way. His debt was from fines he acquired while homeless and riding trains without a ticket. He wanted to work in a café so was doing a barista course and I encouraged him to volunteer at Wesley Café as part of his state debt hours. The staff at the café said he was amazing and when I reported this back to him he said, “The lady doesn’t know how many hours I’ve watched YouTube to teach myself”. He went on to clear his debt and get a traineeship at a big hotel.

Work is not the only benefit some people gain from the connection that volunteering or attending course can bring. People often come to this program quite broken by their circumstances. A woman who counselled people for a living had lost her job due to illness. She came to me with debt but also with a longing for connection. I referred her to the Alternatives to Violence project, a conflict transformation group run by volunteers and she started volunteering. She found her place in the course and connected in with the community. She came back to me and said, “thank you so much, I’ve found my place in the world.”

A man who I met had a debt of only $350. He was married and they were struggling with their toddler since their new baby was born. He shared his current challenges with me at the appointment and I told him about the parenting courses at the Family Support Newcastle and he agreed they should book in. He phoned me back two weeks later. His wife then connected with a local playgroup where she met other Mums and found ways to cope. This reduced the amount the man needed to do to support his wife, so he was able to get work and pay his debt.

One guy who was an alcoholic was going to SMART Recovery but wasn’t really connecting in and improving. He came to see me about his debt and I also gave him the details of the local AA. A few weeks later he came back and saw me – he was clean shaven, washed and had bought new clothes from an op-shop. He actually twirled with pride in front of me. Another month later he came back to thank me as after years of not wearing his glasses, he’d been to the optometrist to get a new glasses prescription that he could now afford. I looked at him and thought, this is why I do what I do – his life is back on track now.

Sometimes the results are surprising even for us. When I first met this particular young woman she had $5000 debt, her children were removed due to extreme domestic violence, she had little formal education and no employment. She had no idea what she wanted to do to pay off her debt but she was thinking about parenting classes to help her have her children restored. It was suggested that she might look at a TAFE course and with a little encouragement she embarked on her first course. 24 months down the track she is now free of her state debt, has TAFE qualifications, a job and has had her children restored. It’s such a powerful story.

When people come to see me, they are often carrying a heavy burden of debt and have little hope that they can move forward with their lives. When they leave I see a glimmer of hope and as the debt rolls away and they start to participate in the world around them, hope does return.”

Judy’s stories show just how powerful support without judgement can be in making a difference in people’s lives. Samaritans has always prided itself in offering a hand to any person, no matter their age, race, sexuality, gender or religion.

For more information on Samaritans Work and Development Orders, or any Samaritans support service, visit www.samaritans.org.au or phone 1300 656 336.