THOUSANDS of people in Edinburgh and the Lothians are drowning in spiralling debt, as charities warn the pressure is pushing many towards suicide.
Citizens Advice Scotland offices across the region were contacted by 10,072 people last year owing a combined figure of £3 million between them – - an average £300 per person - and the service expects the number to rise.
With families reduced to living off handouts from foodbanks, and many sinking into the trap of taking out payday loans with extortionate interest rates to make ends meet, there are fears the damaging debt toll could push many over the edge.
The figures have emerged at the same time as bosses of Christians Against Poverty (CAP), which has two centres in Edinburgh, revealed 45 per cent of people who had come to them for help said they had considered taking their lives.
Annie Lawson, centre manager for the CAP’s Wester Hailes centre at Holy Trinity Church, said she had seen first hand the devastating effect debt has on relationships, health and child welfare.
She said: “I’ve met fathers who have been estranged from the mother of their children who have been unable to go and see their children because they don’t have enough money for transport. They haven’t been able to maintain a relationship with their own family. It’s been incredibly painful for them.
“I knew one guy who had only £20 to live off a week, and that was to cover his food and all his bills. Many people are not able to eat and struggle to feed their families.”
Set up three-and-a-half years ago to help people crippled by debt, CAP’s Wester Hailes centre sees an endless procession of people facing a bleak financial picture which could tip into self-harm.
Ms Lawson said: “I would say most people who come to see me have thought about suicide.
“There have been cases where people have actually had a plan to kill themselves because they can’t see any way out.”
Worryingly, she now asks every client she sees “if they have these thoughts”.
Money difficulties have resulted in many people borrowing from payday loan companies, many of which can charge crippling levels of interest as high as 4000 per cent.
Lothians MSP Kezia Dugdale, below, who set up the campaign Debtbusters to eradicate the firms, said she believes the 10,000 figure reported by Citizens Advice Scotland is just the tip of the iceberg.
She said: “I don’t know how the CAB are managing to cope – it’s only going to get worse when the welfare reforms come in.
“I hear about people whose debt is driving them to suicide all the time.
“One of my constituents took out a £200 payday loan to buy some Christmas presents and it ended up costing him £5000.
“He worked at a call centre and he was paying every last penny that he earned back to the loan companies.”
Last month, a Debtbusters petition signed by more than 1000 people prompted council chiefs to order a report into how they can help tackle the problem of payday loan companies.
Spokesman Garreth Lodge told the committee there were nine payday loan shops in Leith within a ten-minute walk of each other.
Ms Dugdale said: “There’s still a lot that we can do – tackling payday loan companies and chasing them off every street, giving people access to affordable credit and changing the law to improve debt relief.
“I’ve spoken to constituents who are struggling to feed themselves. They have said when times have got really tough they have had to take out payday loans to buy food.
“Loans used to be for life’s luxuries like holidays, but now the adverts ask you if you are having trouble paying for necessities like your electricity bill.
“People are desperate – I’m not shocked by the figure from the CAB. There may be 10,000 who have come forward, but thousands more haven’t.”
The Trussell Trust, which operates a foodbank network across the UK, is about to open its fifth branch in the Capital. Its centres at Burdiehouse and Clermiston have been joined by branches at Gorgie, Leith and now one in the city centre which is expected to operate from the Grassmarket Project.
Scotland development officer Euan Gurr said: “There is a high proportion of people living in poverty in Edinburgh.
“Unless there are radical changes to reverse the decisions regarding welfare, there is going to be a lot of misery for many low-0income families.
“Around 13 per cent of the 492,000 people in the city are income deprived, particularly in areas like Forth, Leith and Pilton.
“We want to extend our provision so that every man, woman and child who needs emergency food can have access to it. It’s inevitable that there are many families who are going hungry.”
Citizens Advice spokesman Keith Dryburgh said: “Our advisers see every day that debt really does destroy lives. Nine out of ten of our debt clients in Scotland have told us that their debt has affected their mental health, and one third said it had affected them physically as well.”
Case study: ‘I was lucky – i got help’
Doris Brown of Wester Hailes is just one of the hundreds of people to have gone to Christians Against Poverty for help with her finances.
The pensioner discovered she was in thousands of pounds of debt after the shock death of her husband John five years ago.
Doris, 73, said: “The situation came about rather horribly.
“I went to wake my husband up and he had died overnight.
“We had been together for 50 years and the whole thing was such a shock.
“Then I discovered all the debt that we had was in my name. There was thousands in banks loans and credit cards that I didn’t know about.”
Doris was advised to go to the CAP’s Wester Hailes centre for help by a church pastor. She said: “At that point I really felt there was no way out.
“I did have to go bankrupt eventually, but it was the best thing for me, and they helped me with my budget.
“There’s no way I could have got myself out of that situation on my own; CAP was there helping me every step of the way.
“It wasn’t just the advice and the help that Christians Against Poverty gave me, but the support – they didn’t judge me.
“I was someone who had always seen myself as good with money.
“When you are in debt, you feel like the only person in the world who has this problem.
“I would go out with friends and going for a coffee was fine, but if they wanted to have lunch I would have to make an excuse.
“But there’s thousands of people in the same position.”
Doris said at times, she felt the burden of her financial worries was too much to bear.
“You do have this thing in the back of your mind of ending things, but I was lucky – I got help.
“I must give all my praise to CAP.”
How to deal with debt
IF you cannot afford to pay your debts, the National Debtline Scotland advises you to explain the situation to your creditors.
Even if you have not decided how to deal with your priority debts, it is a good idea to explain to your creditors that you are struggling.
Fill in a personal budget sheet, which will help you decide what payments you can afford to make to pay back your priority debts.
You may be able to pay back your debts through a debt arrangement scheme, in which interest on what you owe will be frozen, or an informal debt management programme.
In other situations, a trust deed, in which part or all of your assets is transferred to a trustee to manage for the benefit of the creditors, may be an option.
Even if your creditor has said they will take action, such as disconnecting your gas or electricity or repossessing your home, it is usually not too late to come to some arrangement and to stop the action.
There may be benefits, tax credits or Universal Credit that you are not claiming or other ways of increasing your income.