Citizens Advice Bureau deals with groceries, divorce and employment issues in lockdown

Zane Chaudhry, at 21-years-old, has six years of experience volunteering at the Citizens Advice Bureau in Auckland’s Mount Roskill.

Citizens Advice Bureau volunteer Zane Chaudhry takes a phone call from home during lockdown. Source: Supplied

He wants people to know that volunteers like him are still available to all who need it — even in lockdown.

Being able to have “even a small impact on someone for a day” is what kept him coming back, the University of Auckland social work student told 1News. 

“It started off when my mum was a receptionist. Basically, what would happen was that I’d be home for too long doing nothing as a 15-year-old, and she wanted me to get some community exposure. 

“So, she got me to volunteer a bit as a receptionist,” he said. 

Chaudhry soon moved from the reception desk to interviewing people who’d come to the CAB to better understand what they were facing. 

That meant helping people with questions about all sorts.

He said employment rights and bubble-related queries had become increasingly common in the age of Covid-19. He also mentors other volunteers. 

Citizens Advice Bureau operates out of the Mt Roskill Public Library on Mt Albert Road. Source: Google Maps

“I think the big reason why I’ve been able to carry on is that I’m pretty lucky I’ve got quite a stable environment at home,” Chaudhry said.

Little did he know all those years ago he’d have to do the job from home and in a global pandemic. 

Chaudhry, once again, is substituting the meeting rooms of the CAB at Mount Roskill Community Library for a desk in his house paired with his phone and email.

“We’ve had a few inquiries regarding, in a sense, loneliness. I don’t quite think you’d put it that way. But, for example, you might get an elderly person calling who is having trouble trying to get groceries,” he said of Auckland’s Alert Level 4 restrictions.

“Or, maybe they can’t really leave the house. Or, they’re wondering if someone else is allowed to come into their bubble. 

“We’ve had some general inquiries as well, so around employment, for example. 

“We’ve also had ones about separations and divorces and so forth. So, I’ve had inquiries about how to conduct separations while you’re locked in a bubble.”

National CAB data from the first two weeks of Alert Level 4 reveal the most popular queries were people wanting to find out what their obligations were under Alert Level 4 (314 inquiries), their employment conditions (257), and accessing food assistance (164), housing (159), or legal services (133). 

In that fortnight, the CAB answered nearly 1000 phone calls and almost 400 emails across the country. 

Mount Roskill Citizens Advice Bureau branch manager Tess Porter's at-home lockdown workspace. Source: Supplied

Mount Roskill branch manager Tess Porter joked she was tempting fate when, a few weeks before the country was plunged into Alert Level 4, she reviewed the branch’s Covid-19 contingency plans.

But, it came with more serious implications, she said. 

Porter explained that lockdowns have accelerated the Government agencies’ shift to digital-first or digital-only for its services. 

The Mount Roskill branch had experienced that shift too — before the first lockdown, about 70 per cent of their inquiries were from people walking into the CAB.

Now, half of its interactions with people in between lockdowns were face-to-face, while the other half were by email and phone. 

“What’s happened is people have gotten used to doing things online or by phone, and we’ve just not seen quite as many people walking in,” Porter said.

“The numbers were starting to recover [before the most recent lockdown] — we were back to about 90 per cent of our volume. But, it’s been quite quiet during the lockdown.” 

In its first two weeks of lockdown, the Mount Roskill branch received 52 inquiries. Typically, the branch would see about 100 a week, but a “big chunk” of that number was people picking up forms or asking to see a JP, Porter said.

“Of course, during lockdown, none of that face-to-face stuff happens. So, we get quite worried about clients who don’t have private access to a phone or don’t have access to a computer. It really restricts their options.” 

Earlier this year, the CAB launched its digital exclusion campaign. It argued the shift to digital services was beneficial for many but that it risked further entrenching disadvantage because vulnerable members of the community were being left behind.

Porter said that meant the CAB was helping increasing numbers of people who didn’t have access to the internet or lacked digital skills. 

“It could be quite hard, say, with immigration for a client to find the PDF form on the immigration website that they then print out if they want to do a hard copy. 

“We have people coming into the branch asking us for that. A lot of the paperwork that we are actually printing out and giving to them was immigration forms.”

The CAB’s digital exclusion report recommends that the Government provides “genuine choice” about how people could interact with agencies, whether that be face-to-face services or having printed forms. 

It also proposes ideas to increase digital literacy, urges the Government to put people at the centre of how they design their services, and asks that the CAB be given additional funding and support for the work it was picking up because of the Government’s shift to digital. 

In the meantime, volunteers at the CAB were doing what they could, Porter said. 

“We’re all looked at home and locked down. Everybody’s dealing with it differently and it’s not an easy time … but we’ve still got a huge number of volunteers offering to help from home.

"We’re doing our best to make sure that our clients have got access to information and can access food and get the help they need. 

“I just think that our volunteers are just amazing that they’re willing to do this, and we had this happening at a national scale.”

For Aucklanders in Alert Level 4, the CAB’s services can be accessed by calling 0800 367 222, using its live chat, or through email.