East Belfast Advice Centre

A new independent report on the Community Advocacy Skills Training (CAST) project at East Belfast Independent Advice Centre shows it is making a real difference to the lives of local people. 

Through the project, EBIAC offers people advice on issues including welfare benefits, housing, employment, debt and consumer rights from their offices in the East Belfast Network Centre, and at four outreach centres in the Short Strand, Woodstock, Clarawood and Tullycarnet areas. The project is supported with a grant from the Big Lottery Fund’s Reaching Communities Northern Ireland programme. 

The project also provides home visits in the east Belfast and Castlereagh areas for people who are housebound. In addition, the CAST project allows EBIAC to train volunteers from the local community to work as advisers. 

Independent consultant Brendan Smith has been evaluating the project for the past four years. His report, launched by the First Minister, Peter Robinson on Friday 20th of June, includes interviews with people who have been helped through the project. 

One local woman had this to say of the advice she received:

“If the adviser had not stepped in to help I wouldn’t be here today. As a family we were lost and terrified. We dreaded the post coming through the letterbox with all the bills and threatening letters. I was ready to end things. That was the reality of my state of mind.

“The EBIAC adviser sorted out a referral to the Woodstock centre for specialist mental health support and made sure I basically had a roof over my head. Over time all my benefit and housing issues were sorted out.

“The improvement in how I feel mentally between then and now is like night and day, really. The advice I got gave me a breathing space just at the right time.”

The report shows that the project has a clear positive impact in addressing the following significant issues in the community:

  • Mental health deterioration among the most vulnerable
  • Breakdown and disintegration of families
  • Community disconnection 

As well as this, the service delivered by volunteers and staff has ensured that, to date, the local community is better off by £3,878,692 as more and more people have been assisted in accessing their statutory entitlement to benefits. This not only improves their lives and those of their families, but also adds to the income of local businesses and the prosperity of the whole community. 

The unique two pronged approach of the project means that local volunteers receive practical training and work experience while delivering a vital service in their communities. Since the project started in 2010, 14 volunteers have gained paid employment as a direct result of the training they have received. Therefore, the project is also providing meaningful and useful opportunities for local people. 

Report author Brendan Smith said

“The EBIAC model of advice provision represents good practice that should inform future work in the advice sector. Whilst there are numerous key success factors, at the heart of project delivery is a compassionate, person centred and holistic approach which strives to treat the most vulnerable people with respect and to invest the time required to comprehensively identify the full range of advice needs.”

Big Lottery Fund NI Chair, Frank Hewitt, said:

“The Reaching Communities Northern Ireland programme has been very effective in ensuring that Lottery money reaches strong and innovative projects that have a real and lasting impact on people’s lives. 
“The CAST project is an excellent example of this, and plays an important role in addressing disadvantage and supporting some of the most isolated and vulnerable people in east Belfast.”