To describe the effects of the cost of living crisis, the energy crisis and the aftermath of the pandemic as "disastrous" for North Ayrshire could be an understatement.

But help is at hand, thanks to the team at CHAP, based in Ardrossan

They are standing ready to help in a crisis, give budget advice, let people know their rights and, sometimes, just lend a shoulder to help them bear the burdens of everyday living.

In the last year, CHAP recorded a 21 per cent increase in referrals for managing problem debt.

During the same period, they helped clients regain more than £2.8 million in unclaimed benefits and debt cancellations - their highest figure in a single year.

They're not just helping adults though. Their schools programme is helping pupils understand financial responsibity - and the pressures their parents may be faciing

North Ayrshire is officially Scotland's third most deprived area, coming just behind Glasgow and Inverclyde. Around 17 per cent of the population are living in absolute poverty after paying their housing costs, according to the most recent figures.

And that was years before the cost of living crisis really took hold.

Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald: CHAP are based in the Miochael Lynch Centre in Ardrossan

CHAP's CEO Debbie Alexander said: “We are trying to break down the stigma in seeking help for financial problems. Anything can happen to anyone for whatever reasons. It could be ill health or a relationship breakdown or a job loss.

“We want to normalise the fact that it is alright to ask for help.

"We can help with debt, housing benefit and put money back in people’s pockets. We want to let people be in control of what they have got."

The current financial climate has taken a toll on many families across North Ayrshire

Debbie said: “Referrals have increased in the last year. We have always delivered the service from the office in Ardrossan’s Princes Street, but we now do a lot of outreach work in sports centres, community centres and so on.

“One reason for that is to break down the stigma, where people might be embarrassed coming into the office to ask for help.

“Another is that if people do have financial problems, then maybe they can’t afford to travel from, say, Springside to Ardrossan.

“You need to feel you can talk to someone you trust, and that’s what we are doing in the communities.

"We have been doing outreach work in Irvine, the Three Towns and the Garnock Valley, and it is going really well.

“That’s the big focus. Getting into the community, and getting help to the people who need it most.

“That includes people who have had had a comfortable lifestyle with no money issues before, but maybe interest rates are affecting them, leaving them with not enough to eat. People really are finding it tough."

And Debbie is keen to stress that the vital services CHAP provide are there for everyone - not just those who may be struggling with housing issues.

“People have a preconceived notion that this is all about people who are homeless," she said, "but there are so many reasons that are outwith people’s control.

“Quite often people phone us at the last minute, when they are facing court or eviction.

“But it doesn’t have to be an emergency for people to come to CHAP.

"We do the crisis work, but we would love folk to come to use in the early stages so they don’t have to go through all the stress and trauma.

"It is all too easy for people to bury their heads in the sand. That can really impact people’s mental health eventually.

“If people simply can’t balance the books one month, we can help too.”

CHAP manager Laura Houston added: “A lot of people who come to us don’t know they have rights and options. Just having them explained to them, and letting them know the pros and cons, can make a big difference to them.

"We want to make sure people are not disadvantaged through a lack of knowledge of their rights. Some people can self help after they are pointed in the right direction. It is all about financial resilience.”

And it's not just adults who are being helped, Debbie says - with CHAP's experts taking the message to local schools in a bid to educate the next generation on how to manage their money.

"Schools are improving numeracy, but not a lot of other things for use in everyday life," she continued.

"Students might never know about paying bills, or what council tax is, or simply working within a budget.

“Parents might not talk to the kids about money or budgeting. And with kids, there is the pressure of trying to keep up with social media and brands. They then put pressure on their parents, not knowing how stretched the money is.

“It is about giving them that knowledge and helping to take the pressure off the parents.”