Inside the UK's warm banks where people go to escape the cold

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By Joshua Askew
Andrew, Kim and a fellow volunteer at the Elim Warm Bank, Worthing, England, 13/12/2022.
Andrew, Kim and a fellow volunteer at the Elim Warm Bank, Worthing, England, 13/12/2022.   -   Copyright  Joshua Askew

“Knowing that people were out there in the cold, we just couldn't bear it. We had to do something”, Kim Griffiths told Euronews.

She is a volunteer at one of the thousands of warm banks that have sprung up around the UK offering people a space where they can escape freezing homes.

Every Tuesday, Kim and her fellow volunteers open the doors of Elim Pentecostal Church in Worthing, West Sussex, to the public so they can get warm.

Alongside a heated space, they provide warm soup, tea, coffee -- and the odd biscuit -- to anyone who comes to the centre. There is also a projection on the back wall of a large crackling fire, to reinforce the message of warmth. 

“People around here are really struggling because of the financial climate,” said Andrew Fadoju, a church minister who helps run the warm space.

“We are very worried about the poorer families out there”.

Elim’s warm bank is a grim testament to the hefty impact of the cost of living crisis in Britain.

Wintry weather hit for the first time last week, with large parts of the country carpeted in snow and ice as temperatures plummeted well below freezing.

For some, the wintry weather was a festive treat. For others, a source of dread.

Yui Mok/PA
A person walks through the snow and fog on Hackney Marshes in London, Sunday Dec. 11, 2022.Yui Mok/PA

Energy bills in Britain have leapt by more than 80% this year – one of the highest rates in Europe – forcing people to make impossible choices between heating their homes or eating, according to experts.

And it is predicted to get worse.

An estimated 8.4 million British households will be in fuel poverty from April 2023, according to National Energy Action.

The idea of a space where people could escape freezing cold homes was almost unknown a few months ago. But now they are dotted all over Britain’s towns and cities.

Elim is one of nearly 3,400 warm banks that form part of Warm Welcome, a network of community organisations, such as churches, libraries and businesses, offering people respite from the cold. 

“The cost-of-living crisis is already affecting millions across the UK, with many reporting they will be unable to switch on the heating in the coming months,” Warm Welcome says on their website. “We believe everyone should have a warm and welcoming space to go to this winter.”

Elim opened on 8 November, with Warm Welcome launching that same month. After a slow start, people have begun to trickle in and seek their support. Still, Kim was worried about those who weren't coming to use the service.

“There’s still a social stigma attached to not being able to afford heating. There must be a lot of people who are sitting in an icy home, who want to come, but fear they will be judged if they come to us,” she said.

GLYN KIRK/AFP or licensors
Worthing is a seaside town in West Sussex, near Brighton.GLYN KIRK/AFP or licensors

Born and raised in Worthing, a seaside town in West Sussex, Kim believed others may be stuck in a Catch-22, with freezing temperatures at home confining them to the house.

“The cold is so debilitating,” she said. “Why would you want to leave a cold home to go out in cold weather. It's horrible”.

But Elim warm bank is more than just a place to warm, helping people with their emotional, psychological and social well-being.

“If people know they have something to look forward to in the next week  – be it a chat, a coffee or some tea – it can really help their mental wellbeing,” Fadoju told Euronews.

Moving to Worthing from Nigeria more than three decades ago, the minister said creating warm spaces was something the community could do to help vulnerable people, alongside action by the authorities.

“There are certain things a state can do, but there are other things a good community should do,” he said. “Part of being human is working together and helping one another”.

“If NGOs stopped working in their communities, society would crumble.”

But Fadoju believed more action from the state was necessary to support those who were struggling.

Having worked in local schools in the past, he was worried for the children in families at the “sharp edge of things”.

“Children were already coming to school hungry, without the right clothes, now there is the added worry of heating,” Fadoju said. “How can they come from a cold place, hungry and tired, and learn?”

“The government should do more to help those in need.”

Almost one in three children in the UK is living in poverty, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Rising living costs throughout 2002 have pushed this figure higher, amid reports from headteachers across England of children eating their rubbers or hiding in the playground because they cannot afford lunch.

The British government says it is helping people through the cost of living crisis, offering households cash payments to help with their energy bills and providing free school meals to millions of children.

“Even if people are not struggling and they can afford to switch the heating on, they should look at what difficulties people are facing in their daily lives, ” Fadoju told Euronews.

“It must be a nightmare."