Money woes: An increasing number of families are seeking help to pay bills, including rent. *Overseas iStock photo
Money woes: An increasing number of families are seeking help to pay bills, including rent. *Overseas iStock photo
FRIDAY, MAR. 25: Bermudians plagued by debt are seeking help in increasing numbers, experts said this week.

The number of people falling foul of creditors as they plunge deeper into the red has risen sharply since the global recession started to bite.

Rent and cellphone bills are going unpaid and Bermudians are also struggling to pay for medical treatments and even liquor bills, we are told. 

Bermuda Credit Association general manager Dora Whitecross said: “We have seen an increase in the number of debts listed with us in recent times.

“And it’s a marked increase — we’re also receiving requests from members who normally we would not see — certainly the retail sector is having some hard times.”

Ms Whitecross added: “The tricky part is trying to recover these debts — so many people are simply unemployed or in a household where there is only one person working, but all the expenses are still there.

“Some people may have lost their jobs because the company may have left the island or where they were formerly employed has down-sized their workforce.”

Ms Whitecross said problems most commonly sprung from unpaid cellphone and utility bills. But she added that requests to recover medical bills and liquor bills were also on the increase.

She said: “The requests to retrieve debts are right across the board as well – we’ve a membership of more than 300 companies, ranging from small landscaping companies to major companies in the financial sector.”

And Ms Whitecross urged anyone struggling to pay their bills not to ignore calls from creditors or their agents.

She said: “The best advice is if any collection agency is trying to contact an individual; it’s of primary importance they return the call.

“Talk to the people, be honest and lay the cards on the table.

“We try and work with people and help them tidy up a few areas they may have neglected in the past.

“The smartest thing an individual can do is to make us their pal, not an enemy. It doesn’t work.”

Harold Minors, senior community worker at The Centre on Angle Street, said that demand for the free legal advice offered as part its community service had spiked over the last two years.

And he predicted this year would set new records for The Centre’s team of volunteer lawyers.

Mr. Minors said: “We saw 280 people last year, which was well up on the previous year. This year, I expect we’ll see well in excess of 300 people – demand is definitely increasing.

“There is a limit to the number of people we can see, but out of the goodness of their hearts our lawyers often stay past time to help everyone who turns up.

“Based on last year, rents are a huge problem, with people being asked to vacate their premises because of unpaid rent.”

Mr. Minors added that people often wait until the eleventh hour before coming to The Centre for advice.

Seek help

But he said: “People in trouble should seek help as fast as possible – before it gets out of hand.

“People often come to us when there’s a crisis, like they’re going to court the next day.

“It’s really important to seek help – from whatever source – before that, while things are still manageable.

“If there are any problems, come in, see a lawyer, get some legal advice.

“This is free, but the advice might be that people need to secure the help of a lawyer and they will have to be paid, but legal aid might be available.

“People can often settle things in the Small Claims Court – the worst thing they can do is despair and ignore their problems.”

Coalition for the Protection of Children chairman Sheelagh Cooper said demand from families struggling to make ends meet had increased “threefold” in the last year.

She added: “That’s five families a day looking for food or looking for some form of financial help.”

And she said: “We’re also seeing a lot of people on the verge of being evicted.

“Many of these people have had their working hours cut and the increase in health insurance premiums is especially concerning for the working poor.

“For many low-paid Bermudians, health insurance premiums are a quarter of their wages.

“Problems have been gradually increasing, but there has been a big increase in the past year.”

And she predicted: “I expect to see that increase continuing going forward.”

Ms Cooper added that demand for the service’s breakfast programme in schools was also increasing and that it was hoped to add another two schools to the existing four by September.

Salvation Army Major Shaun Critch said: “Absolutely without question we’ve seen an increase in our programmes, especially community and family-based programmes.

“These community and family services are practical — groceries mostly and feeding programmes.

“The increase over the last few months has been marked and as more people become unemployed or suffer in other ways, we expect that to continue.

“Most of it is based on the economy and I suspect as safety nets become stretched over the next few months demand will continue to rise, certainly over the next four to six months.”