An organisation helping people to find employment is increasingly having to support its users in “putting food on the table and keeping warm” instead.

The Inclusive Economy Project, managed by East Coast College, has revealed that the cost of living is “taking over” as the dominant issue.

It comes following last week’s cost of living "emergency” declared by Norfolk Community Advice Network’s (Ncan) steering group.

The Norfolk-wide partnership of advice and community experts represents more than 100 free advice and support providers, and made its declaration amid the national economic woes.

What are the concerns?

Richard Catchpole, of the Inclusive Economy Project, said: “Our delivery partners offer employment training and support, drop-in community cafes, help and support with financial planning and benefits support to individuals who are often furthest removed from the workplace.

Eastern Daily Press: Advice at drop-in centres for people needing helpAdvice at drop-in centres for people needing help (Image: Inclusive Economy Project)

“However, without exception, [they] have become a refuge within their local communities and are now inundated with individuals who are facing extreme financial hardship.

“Families are unable to put food on the table let alone heat their homes.

“They are also concerned for the financial wellbeing of their own staff. In some cases, people who previously donated to food banks have now become the recipients.”

How are individuals being impacted?

The project works alongside its delivery partners, the charitable organisations Access Community Trust, Action Community Enterprises CIC, Dial Great Yarmouth, Future Projects and the Royal Association for Deaf people.

All have revealed that they are overwhelmed by the number of people coming to them desperate for help with the cost of living.

Eastern Daily Press: Advice and support offered by the Inclusive Economy Project and its charitable organisation partnersAdvice and support offered by the Inclusive Economy Project and its charitable organisation partners (Image: Inclusive Economy Project)

Among those to receive help is a woman from west Norfolk, who wanted to remain anonymous, who spent a decade caring for her husband before he died from cancer last Christmas.

While grieving, she urgently needed to find work but found it an "extremely daunting" prospect.

"It was horrendous,” she said. “To start with I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.

“I class myself as a strong independent person but when you have such little money to live on, and you’re still grieving and worrying about how you’ll feed yourself or afford the petrol to get to the job centre to get paid weekly, is frightening.”

Since accessing help from the project, the woman has found work as a trainee skills connector for Access Community Trust.

The facts and figures

Soaring energy prices have sent an increasing number of households plunged into crisis. In 2020, statistics based on data from the English Housing Survey recorded 63,174 Norfolk households living in fuel poverty.

A study by Child Poverty Action Group, published in August 2022, estimated just over half (51.3pc) of households in the Eastern region will be living in fuel poverty by January 2023. That would mean 1,300,000 households and 3,449,00 people living in fuel poverty

And with a steep increase in the number of people seeking help with the cost of living, the partners working alongside the Project say they are having to adapt services to meet demand.

Debbie Watson, operations manager at Norwich-based Future Projects, which helps people with skills and education, said: “We are finding across all of our projects the cost of living is taking over. My colleagues are seeing people daily who’ve reached crisis point.

“We have seen an increase in footfall of people coming into our centre, using it as a warm hub. We are not seeing people about skills or education. People just want help with putting food on the table or keeping warm.

“People can’t afford to eat and need a space where there is hope."

What is the impact if action is not taken?

Inclusive Economy Project’s green ambassador, Declan Jones, said: “We are doing everything we can do to help people at ground level, however if higher powers don’t act fast, we have a real fear of how many more people will start to struggle.

Eastern Daily Press: Inclusive Economy Project green ambassador Declan Jones at the drop-in centreInclusive Economy Project green ambassador Declan Jones at the drop-in centre (Image: Inclusive Economy Project)

“It’s now not only the unemployed who are seeking help and guidance but also those in full-time employment.

“People are truly struggling just to make it through the day due to the rise in the cost of living.

“They are left with the impossible decision of whether to heat their home for the evening or have food on the table at the end of the day as the two combined are completely exhausting their budgets.”