January can be a challenging time of year, particularly for self-employed and low-earning horticulturists. There is often less work for the self-employed over the winter, heating bills are higher and, of course, celebrating Christmas poses an extra pressure on resources. Those who are struggling to keep their families warm and fed may find themselves falling into debt and now as the New Year arrives so do the credit card and fuel bills.
Perennial, the charity dedicated to helping all horticulturists in times of crisis, receives many calls at this time of year from people who realise that they cannot manage. Perennial provides a lifeline for those who have nowhere else to turn. Its dedicated debt advice service is free, impartial, completely confidential and tailored to the circumstances of the individual. The team of trained caseworkers provide face-to-face help and advice to clients, and continue to do so until they are back on their feet.
The demand for Perennial's debt advice service has risen in recent years, with an eight per cent increase in clients in 2014 compared with the previous year, and cases are becoming more complex. Debt is not always caused by financial mismanagement. Many of the charity's clients suffer injury at work and as a result lose their income, sometimes for months on end. This can cause long-term problems and be the catalyst for a family's financial situation spiralling out of control.
Head of casework Helen Waddington says: "Problems are like icebergs - initially we only see the small part on the surface. People may have benefits problems, not be able to pay bills, credit problems, ill health and so on. But it is very rare to find only one thing. As we delve deeper, we realise there is much more we need to deal with.
"Horticulture is seasonal work and generally low-paid, and illness or injury can be devastating to a family's income. We can help people claiming benefits to which they are entitled but might not know about and we sometimes give financial assistance while they wait for the benefits to come through."
The debt advisers may get involved by negotiating with creditors, preparing financial statements, advising on bankruptcy, helping with court paperwork and offering representation at tribunals and hearings. They help identify any eligible welfare or tax benefits and assist with grant and charity applications. They also teach individuals how to plan for a more stable future by providing advice on managing finances so that they do not fall into this situation again.
Help for all ages
Although Perennial is still often known as a charity that helps retired gardeners, more than 60 per cent of its clients are below retirement age. As well as many families with children, it frequently helps single men, who are often very lonely, having lived with parents who have died. In addition, clients may have learning difficulties, which makes it hard for them to access the right sort of help.
In rural areas, transport costs are a huge factor for many people and often there is no gas supply so fuel must be purchased up front, which causes particular problems in winter when fuel is necessary but the funds are not available. Perennial frequently pays out grants over winter - for example, to pay for oil or fuel up front for those who cannot afford it themselves.
Waddington continues: "We aim to make contact with new clients within three days of their first contact with us and we aim to visit them at home within 10 working days. It's really important for us to see people at home - it gives us lots of information about their situation. We have visited homes with no heating, no furniture and very little food. Importantly, we can show people how much we can do to help, which is usually in many more ways than our clients expect."
The number of people seeking help from Perennial is increasing, but all too often people wait until their problems have escalated before they ask for help. If you or someone you know needs help, contact Perennial in confidence.
How You Can Help
There is still a long way to go until everyone in the industry knows about Perennial and the help it can offer. It is up to everyone to help spread the word and remove the barriers and stigma around asking for help.
If you would like to show your support for Perennial, why not become a Perennial Partner? This is a simple way for all employers and suppliers to show year-round support for their trade charity by making an annual donation at the level appropriate for their business - platinum, gold, silver or bronze.
Perennial also encourages individuals to get involved through HortAid, the annual fundraising appeal. A wide range of fundraising activities takes place, from mud runs and skydives to marathons and bike rides. The launch for HortAid 2016 will take place at the Party for Perennial on Friday 15 January 2016. Held in the Skyloft at Millbank Tower in London, the party is a fabulous opportunity for networking, fun and fundraising - and tickets are still available.
For further information about HortAid, the Party for Perennial and joining the Perennial Partners scheme:
Call: 0800 093 8510
Helpline: 0800 093 8543
Debt advice: 0800 093 8546
General: 0800 093 8510
Case study #1: Peter's story
Peter has worked in the horticulture industry for more than 30 years. He contacted Perennial in 2014 after a serious accident at work left him severely injured and unable to work. He suffered a double spiral fracture of the leg that put him completely out of action for 10 months.
He is self-employed and as the main wage earner with a young family the loss of income was devastating. His physical state affected him mentally and he became depressed.
"It was during one of my really low points that I was reminded about Perennial," he recalls. "I knew by this point that I needed help. I was eligible for tax credits and financial help but I couldn't face filling in the forms and really didn't know where to start. I made a call and it changed my life.
"The Perennial caseworker who was assigned to my case seemed to swoop in and sort us out. She helped with statutory benefits, made an immediate financial grant payment to help with debts that had built up, helped us buy our children a Christmas present and helped with winter fuel costs. Even after I returned to work, she stayed in touch and made sure we were safe and well.
"Looking back I know I have seen my darkest days - it's a period of my life I am very pleased is behind me. But I've come out the other side having re-evaluated my priorities, with the help of my amazing family and Perennial. I would urge anyone who is struggling to make ends meet, or is worried about their financial situation, particularly over winter, to make the call to Perennial."
Case study #2: John's story
Following a family crisis, John, a successful landscape gardener, experienced a breakdown. Unable to continue working, his debts spiralled and by the time Perennial's casework team was put in touch with the family John had already sold the family car and other assets as he struggled to meet repayments on their mortgage, service an overdraft and pay the household bills.
Sorting out the family's finances was crucial. Perennial's debt adviser was able to help with creditor negotiations and increase the family's income by identifying state benefits to which they were entitled. More importantly, John's faith in his own ability to care for his family was restored by putting him back in control of the family budget.
Six months later, John felt ready to resume work and Perennial provided further support in the form of a grant to help him get a vehicle back on the road.
Case study #3: Mark's story
During the last very cold UK winter in 2009-10, Mark, a tree surgeon, was worried about his family's welfare so he contacted Perennial. His wages had remained static for more than a year but fuel prices were soaring and Mark was struggling to keep his wife and children warm.
They were regularly waking up to ice on the inside of windows and wearing as many layers as possible to stay warm. A Perennial caseworker visited the family home, found that it had space for a wood burner and arranged for quick installation, safeguarding Mark's family for many winters to come.