‘Life or death.’ Britons bear the cost of living crisis, with many turning to ‘warm banks’ for warmth this winter | Daily News Byte

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London
CNN

At a community center in central London, a toddler plays in a makeshift area as his carer parks his stroller and chats with a friend.

The Oasis Center in Waterloo is housed in a four-story building that has a warm, inviting feel with plush chairs and lots of leaves.

But it’s not your regular high street hangout. It’s a haven for families and locals to escape the bitter squeeze of Britain’s cost-of-living crisis – if only for an afternoon.

Oasis Center in Waterloo, London on 1 December.

Thousands of cozy banks have opened their doors across the UK this winter, as rising energy bills further squeeze household budgets and inflation hits a 40-year high, leaving many struggling to pay for basic needs. More than 3,000 registered organizations run warm banks in Britain, according to the Warm Welcome campaign, an initiative that signspost community-led responses to livelihoods crises.

“A lot of people are struggling,” Charlotte, a community and family worker at the center, told CNN. Her full name has not been released for privacy reasons.

“We haven’t reached the top of the living crisis yet,” adds the 33-year-old mother of four. “One should not choose whether to put food on the table or heat it.”

The hub is funded by donations from individuals and local businesses, as well as income from charitable trusts.

According to UK government data, the cost of living has risen sharply since the start of 2021. From October 2021 to October 2022, domestic gas and electricity prices increased by 129% and 66% respectively, the same research found.

With average annual energy bills rising 96% to £2,500 (about $3,000) since last autumn, the UK government intervened to cap the unit cost of gas and electricity bills at that level until April 2023. However, the total amount consumers pay for them. According to the UK’s regulator, Ofgem, energy depends on their consumption habits, where they live, how they pay for energy and what type of meter they use.

A welcome sign outside the Oasis Center in London on December 12, which is open to all communal areas that act as 'warm banks'.

Charlotte, who works and uses heating in Waterloo, says she limits gas and electricity use in her flat. She says that instead of turning on the heating in the evening, she and her partner sit under a quilt and use a hot water bottle to stay warm.

She also expects her household’s energy costs to rise over Christmas, as her children, who are aged between 4 and 17, spend more time at home during the school holidays. At the moment, Charlotte spends most days at the hub and said the habit will continue through the holidays to help her keep costs down at home.

Grace Richardson is adult services manager at Future Projects in Norwich, East England, an organization that provides health, housing and financial support to residents. She says her team began planning over the summer to provide a warm space at the organization’s Baseline Center, located in an area with significant poverty.

“Especially this winter, it’s very important that we offer a place where people can turn off everything at home and they can save money,” she tells CNN.

“We have people here working full time and they can’t make ends meet. That’s where the real difference lies.”

From young parents to pensioners to students in their 20s, Richardson says people from all walks of life use the hot spot, with about 25 people attending each day. Garam Bank, where staff serve meals, is subsidized by grant funds from local councils and private or corporate foundations, as well as donations from individuals.

The cafe space at Future Projects' Baseline Center in Norwich.  The center, which serves as a community space, is currently undergoing renovations.

Michael John Edward Easter, 57, says the Baseline Center’s service has been a lifeline for him this winter.

Easter, who has lymphedema in both legs and arthritis in one knee, is unable to work. Speaking to CNN earlier this month, he said he had only turned on the heating in his one-bedroom flat twice this year so far this year to avoid rising energy costs and to cover a 50% increase in his weekly supermarket bill.

He says he was “in a mess” when he first arrived at the Baseline Center for welfare counseling in January, because he faced mobility challenges and craved a sense of community.

“I was so ashamed and embarrassed, but I had to cry for help,” he says. “I needed help and didn’t know where to turn. If I’m being completely honest, I’m pretty lonely.

Richardson suggests that the need for hot banks is a result of government inaction.

“I think it shows how out of touch our government is with real life reality. I think it screams … the divide between us and them, it’s just getting wider,” she says. “We refer to this as the cost of living crisis, as if that’s the period we’re going to go through. Stay and we’ll come out the other side. Will we? It’s life or death.”

Russia’s war in Ukraine has pushed up energy prices across Europe since the fall of 2021. But UK energy prices have risen more sharply than comparable economies such as France and Italy, analysts told CNN Business this summer.

In November, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Finance Minister Jeremy Hunt announced higher taxes and cut public spending in an effort to pull the country out of a recession forecast to last just over a year, shrinking its economy by just over 2%. Office for Budget Responsibility. The UK is the only G7 economy that remains smaller than before the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Snow-covered roofs on terraced houses in Aldershot, UK on December 12.  Electricity prices in the UK hit record levels as prolonged periods of freezing temperatures boosted demand.

The UK Government has also announced an Energy Bill Support Scheme of £400 per eligible household, which will partially subsidize household energy bills from winter 2022 to 2023, as well as providing extra financial support to help pensioners pay their heating costs under winter fuel. Payment plan.

More than one million households with prepayment meters did not redeem their monthly energy support vouchers – which are part of the government’s Energy Bill Support Scheme – in December, the BBC reported.

But Michael Marmot, a leading researcher on epidemiology and health inequalities, says years of austerity, meager government support, spending cuts on social welfare and infrastructure and a lack of regulation in the UK’s energy market have plunged millions into fuel poverty.

“Poverty has been growing and getting worse over the past dozen years,” says Marmot, director of the Institute of Health Equity at University College London.

“We look the worst of the G7 countries, we are alone in terms of recovery … we have not gone back to where we were pre-pandemic. This is massive mismanagement.”

An estimated 3.69 million households in the UK were in fuel poverty by December 2020, compared to 6.99 million households in December 2020, Simon Francis, who co-ordinates the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, told CNN.

This figure is set to continue to rise, with three-quarters of UK households – 53 million people – predicted to be in fuel poverty by the New Year, according to research from 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, the Guardian reports. The charity chief also called on the government to provide more support for families, as he predicted severe financial hardship for millions in January.

“What do you want a well-functioning society to do? At a minimum, people should be able to eat, feed their families, have safe housing … and safe housing includes one that is warm enough,” Marmot adds. .

Flyers advertising a hot spots service with complimentary breakfast for visitors at Ashburton Hall Community Hub, run by Greenwich Leisure Ltd, in Croydon, UK, on ​​December 15.

Susan Aitken, leader of Glasgow City Council in Scotland, says hot banks are “not a solution” to the cost of living crisis but an “emergency service”. The council has set up more than 30 hot banks across the city in places including church halls, libraries, sports venues and cafes, and that number is expected to grow, according to Aitken. The service runs on a council budget and charitable donations.

“The solution is for people to stay in their own homes,” she says.

“It is so bad that food banks have now become a permanent fixture of communities across the UK. It’s a complete indictment (of government policy) that people have to go to places because they can’t afford to heat their homes.”

CNN has reached out to the UK government for comment, but it has not responded.

Back at the Oasis Centre, locals offer free hot meals from knitting circles to after-school clubs.

The hub’s founder, Steve Chalke, says about 200 people use the facility daily for warmth. He says he does not advertise the service as a lukewarm bank because it is “inhumane”. Instead, it coordinates community-led events held at hot spots across the city.

“The idea is not to inquire and not to ask,” he says. “It’s stigmatizing and it’s traumatic, you know, so you feel like a non-person. So we want to remove that stigma by all means.

Steve Chalke, founder of the Oasis Centre, in Waterloo, London, on December 1.

Francis, the End Fuel Poverty Coalition Coordinator, says one of the most significant challenges to tackling fuel poverty is overcoming the reluctance people may feel when asking for support.

“I think one of the problems with fuel poverty … is that it’s a hidden form of poverty. People kind of … try and cover it up and try and get by,” he says. We don’t know the full extent of what they’re doing, because there will be ways that people will hide what they’re doing.”

According to a 2020 report from the UCL Institute of Health Equity, the mental health costs of fuel poverty are far-reaching. The report found that young people living in cold homes were seven times more likely to have poor mental health symptoms than those living in warm homes.

“There are surprisingly many people who have work, but still not enough to stay afloat without at least some help,” says Bintu Tijani, a mother of four who goes to the Oasis center at least three times a week. to warm up. “It’s having a significant impact on people’s well-being, mental health and well-being.”

Looking ahead to Christmas and the New Year, Francis says he is also concerned about the strain on Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) to treat medical conditions that worsen or require treatment due to cold weather.

“We are still calling on the Government to realize that if it does not take action to support those who are most vulnerable … it is going to see a huge increase in the number of people finding themselves at the door of the NHS. Help due to the fact that they now live in a cold, damp house and it makes them sick,” he says.

Britain’s NHS is already under pressure amid staff shortages, historic nurses’ strikes over poor pay and working conditions, and a treatment backlog as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Glasgow councilor Aitken believes this Christmas will be a “very miserable time” for many people.

“A Christmas where you have to ration how long you can keep your heating on in your house is not a good Christmas for anyone.”

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