A young child plays in a makeshift area as her carer rocks her pram and chats with friends at a community center in central London.
Housed in a four-story building, the Oasis Center in Waterloo has a warm, inviting feel, with plush chairs and lots of potted plants.
But this isn’t your regular high street hangout. It’s a haven for families and locals escaping the misery of Britain’s cost of living crisis – even if it’s just for the afternoon.
Thousands of warm banks across the UK have opened their doors this winter as household budgets are squeezed further by soaring energy bills, with inflation at a 40-year high and many scrambling to buy basic necessities. More than 3,000 registered organizations in the UK are running Warm Banks, according to Warm Welcome, which has signed up to the community-led response to the cost of living crisis.
“A lot of people are struggling,” Charlotte, a community and family worker at the center, told CNN. For privacy reasons, her full name was not released.
“We haven’t even really reached the peak of our life crisis yet,” the 33-year-old mother of four added. “No one should have the choice of whether to put food on the table or turn on the heat.”
Funding for the center comes from donations from individuals and local businesses, as well as grant income from charitable trusts.
The cost of living has risen sharply since the start of 2021, according to UK government figures. The same study found that domestic gas and electricity prices increased by 129% and 66%, respectively, from October 2021 to October 2022.
The UK government intervened to limit the unit cost of gas and electricity bills at that level until April 2023, after average annual energy bills soared 96% to £2,500 ($3,000) compared with last autumn. However, the total amount consumers pay for energy depends on their consumption habits, where they live, how they pay for energy and the type of meter they use, according to UK regulator Ofgem.
Charlotte, who works in a warm space in Waterloo and uses Charlotte, said she limits gas and electricity use in her apartment. Instead of turning on the heat at night, she and her partner sat under the covers and used hot water bottles to keep warm, she said.
She also expects her household energy costs to increase over Christmas as her children, aged 4 to 17, spend more time at home during the school holidays. Currently, Charlotte spends most of her time at the hub and said the habit will continue into the holidays to help ease her spending at home.
Grace Richardson is an adult services manager at Future Projects in Norwich, East England, which provides health, housing and financial support to residents. She said her team started planning over the summer to provide a warming space at the group’s Baseline Center, which is located in a severely deprived area.
“Especially this winter, it’s really important that we provide a space where people can switch off everything in their home and save money,” she told CNN.
“We have people here who work full-time and they’re living beyond their means. That’s the real difference.”
From young parents to pensioners to students in their 20s, Richardson said people from all walks of life used the warm space, with about 25 people attending each day. Warm Banks, where staff provide meals, are subsidized by grants from local councils and private or corporate foundations, as well as individual donations.
Michael John Edward Easter, 57, said the services at the Baseline Center have been his lifeline this winter.
East suffered lymphedema in both legs and arthritis in one knee and was unable to work. He told CNN earlier this month that he has only turned on the heat in his one-bedroom apartment twice so far this year to avoid skyrocketing energy costs and compensate him for his weekly supermarket A 50% fee is added to the bill.
He said when he first contacted the Baseline Center for benefits advice in January, he was “a mess” because he was dealing with mobility challenges and craving a sense of community.
“I was very ashamed and embarrassed, but I had to cry for help,” he said. “I need help, but I don’t know where to go. Honestly, I’m very lonely.”
Richardson argues that the need for warmer banks is the result of government inaction.
“I think it highlights how far our government is now from the realities of real life. I think it’s screaming … the gap between us and them is only going to grow,” she said. “We’ve been calling this a cost of living crisis as if this is a period of time we’re going to go through and we’re going to come out the other side. Will we? It’s life or death.”
Energy prices have soared across Europe since the fall of 2021, partly because of Russia’s war in Ukraine. But this summer, analysts told CNN Business that UK energy prices have risen more than comparable economies such as France and Italy.
In November, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Finance Minister Jeremy Hunt announced tax hikes and cuts in public spending in an effort to lift the country out of a recession forecast to last more than a year and shrink its economy by more than 2%. Office of Budget Responsibility. Britain is the only G7 economy still smaller than it was before the coronavirus pandemic, according to the ONS.
The UK government has also announced an Energy Bill Support Scheme, worth £400 per eligible household, which will partly subsidize domestic energy bills in the winter of 2022-2023 and provide additional financial support to help pensioners Those paying for their heating bills this winter under the Winter Fuel Plan.
In December, more than a million households with prepaid electricity meters did not cash in their monthly energy support vouchers – included in the government’s Energy Bill Support scheme, the BBC reported.
But Michael Marmot, lead researcher on epidemiology and health inequality, said years of austerity, meager government support, cuts to social welfare and infrastructure spending, and a lack of regulation in Britain’s energy markets had cost millions of lives. into fuel poverty.
“Poverty has been increasing over the past dozen years, and it’s getting worse,” said Groundhog, director of the Institute for Health Equity at University College London.
“We look the worst of the G7 countries, we’re the only one in terms of recovery … not yet back to where we were before the pandemic. It’s mismanagement on a massive scale.”
Simon Francis, who coordinates the Alliance to End Fuel Poverty, told CNN that an estimated 3.69 million households in the UK were fuel poor as of December 2020, up from 6.99 million in December 2022.
That number is set to rise steadily, with more than three-quarters of British households (53 million people) expected to be fuel-deprived by the new year, according to research by the University of York in northern England.
Human rights organization Save the Children has distributed 2,344 direct grants to low-income families in the UK in the past year, according to The Guardian. The head of the charity also called for more government support for families as it predicted millions of people would face severe financial hardship in January.
“What do you want a well-functioning society to do? At the very least, people should be able to eat, raise their families, have a safe place to live…and safe houses include houses that are warm enough,” added the groundhog.
Susan Aitken, leader of Glasgow City Council in Scotland, said warm banks were “not the answer to the cost of living crisis” but “an emergency service”. According to Aitken, the council has established more than 30 warm banks across the city, including church halls, libraries, sports venues and cafes, and the number is expected to grow. The service operates from the council budget and charitable donations.
“The solution is to enable people to stay in their own homes,” she said.
“It’s bad enough that food banks are now permanent fixtures in communities across the UK. It’s an absolute indictment (of government policy) that people have to go somewhere because they can’t afford to heat their homes.”
CNN has reached out to the UK government for comment but has not responded.
Back at the oasis center, locals take part in everything from knitting circles to after-school clubs with free hot meals.
About 200 people a day use the facility to keep warm, said Steve Chalke, the center’s founder. He said he would not promote the service as a warm bank because it had “no human touch”. Instead, he coordinates community-led events in warm venues across the city.
“The idea is to not ask and not to ask,” he said. “It’s a stigma and trauma, you know, so you end up feeling like you’re not alone. So we want to do what we can to remove that stigma.”
End Fuel Poverty Coalition coordinator Francis said one of the most significant challenges in curbing fuel poverty is removing the taboo people may feel when seeking support.
“I think one of the problems with fuel poverty … is that it’s a fairly hidden form of poverty. People kind of … try to cover it up and try to get by,” he said. “We’re not going to know the full extent of the pain people are suffering this winter because people are going to go out of their way to cover up what they’re doing.”
According to a 2020 report by the University College London Institute for Health Equity, the mental health toll of fuel poverty is profound. Young people living in colder homes were seven times more likely to experience symptoms of poor mental health than those in warmer homes, the report said.
“It’s amazing how many people do have jobs, but it’s not enough to make ends meet, at least not without help,” said Bintu Tijani, a mother of four who goes to work at least once a week. The Oasis Center warmed up three times. “It has a major impact on people’s wellbeing, mental health and wellbeing.”
Looking ahead to Christmas and New Year, Francis said he was also concerned about the pressure on the NHS to be treated for medical conditions exacerbated by or caused by the cold weather.
“We’re still calling on the government to realize that if it doesn’t act to support those who are most vulnerable … it will see a huge increase in the number of people showing up at the door of the NHS asking for help because they are now living in cold and wet homes, It makes them sick,” he said.
Britain’s NHS is already under pressure from staff shortages, a historic nurse strike over poor pay and working conditions and a backlog of treatment due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Glasgow City Councilor Aitken believes that for many people, this Christmas will be “a very tragic time”.
“A Christmas where you have to limit how long you can keep the heat on in your home is not going to be a good Christmas for anyone.”