Photograph above: Michele Rooney, Centre Manager for St Nicholas Church Crosslight Centre
The stress and anxiety of people who find themselves in debt is something with which Michele Rooney is very familiar. She runs a debt counselling service based at St Nicholas’ Church in Chiswick, providing a buffer between debtor and creditors, prioritising debt, making payment arrangements with them and offering emotional and practical support.
“I used to think people who got themselves into debt lived chaotic lives” she tells me. But she now realises that mostly that’s not the case. People who are organised, working full time, on top of things, suddenly find that something happens: an unexpected large bill, family problems, illness, a change of circumstances which tips them in to debt, which can then be very hard to get out of.
“People are vulnerable, anxious, apprehensive. Many have not told their family about it and they find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle, anxious and ashamed”.
Usually people come with one or two really troubling bills: rent, council tax, utilities. A bit further into the conversation they might find out things have got a bit more serious; there’s a possession order for example. Michele’s aim is for her team to provide support for vulnerable people in a loving community, without judgement.
Often people are just poor, not to put too fine a point on it. Their disposable income just isn’t enough to deal with a sudden, large bill, or they find a short period of illness or being between jobs is enough to get them into a hole. Financial problems are compounded by poor understanding of administrative systems. Without confidence, and maybe without good enough English, the problems seem insurmountable.
“Sometimes they look visibly lighter after their first visit, just because they’ve shared the problem” says Michele.
I should not be surprised, she says, that the service is needed in what is on the surface an affluent area. Many people with good jobs and nice houses have found that when there’s a major change in their lives: divorce, bereavement, unemployment, the edifice they’ve built comes tumbling down.
The debt counselling service she runs is a branch of Crosslight, a church charity originally set up originally by William Wilberforce. It is regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and provides training for volunteers so they can take on individual cases and give people as much time as they need to understand their issues.
Once they have gathered the necessary information, they’re across the problems and have the relevant documentation and permissions, they contact creditors on behalf of clients. The volunteers are able to deal with banks and credit card companies, welfare departments and local authorities dispassionately. They have a working knowledge of personal finance, pensions and benefits, and have built up relationships with the agencies involved. At time of writing, the centre has 40 active clients.
“I’ve always found the local authorities to be helpful” says Michele. “We have a long established relationship with Hammersmith and Fulham and Hounslow are getting to know us”.
Another part of the service they offer is free budgeting classes.
Photograph above: St Nicholas Church, Chiswick Mall
The volunteers work in pairs, which takes some of the pressure off them, and Michele says they put no limit on the amount of time and support they offer. They have been working with some of their clients for over three years.
Michele herself does not come from a financial background, but she has empathy in spades, plenty of life experience and a calm, logical approach to problems, to which she has added the training and now several years’ experience of supporting people in debt.
An American who settled in London many years ago with her English banker husband, she worked as a nurse in New York before moving here, working as a visiting nurse (a cross between a district nurse and a health visitor) in Manhattan and Long Island. She also ran a programme which aimed to enable people with medical conditions to live in their homes as long as possible, including a programme for people with AIDS.
Their first child had complex disabilities, so when she moved here she became her main carer, and through that experience she began to work with children, running a support group for parents of children with disabilities.
It was when her husband Andy retrained as a lay priest that she came across Crosslight and she set up Crosslight Advice at St Nicholas Church in Chiswick in 2016. Crosslight has six centres, four of them in London, which all offer debt advice and support.
Chiswick Money Advice Centre
They have recently set up the Chiswick Money Advice Centre to fundraise for the debt counselling service, and have received £1,500 from Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church.
“We would like to be able to pay salaries” Michele tells me. She herself is paid, but she is the only paid worker. She is looking for volunteers both to do the debt counselling and to help with fundraising.
Contact the debt counselling service
The centre is open regularly on Monday evenings from 6.30 – 9.00pm and on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 10.00am – 5.00pm, at St Nicholas Church on Chiswick Mall, though the case workers don’t just work those set hours; arrangements can be made to see clients outside those times.
The centre is most definitely not evangelical, she says. Neither clients nor volunteers are expected to be involved in the church. Get in touch through the website.