February 3, 2023

It was about zero degrees Celsius in Birmingham when families flocked to Gas Street St Luke’s church pub, one of the city council’s designated ‘warm spaces’, to escape the December chill.

Staff said the cafe, just outside the city center, has been busier than ever in recent weeks as the cold weather has set in and people are trying to turn off heating at home due to rising costs.

“Being at home with the kids, you get burned by gas and electricity, so coming here isn’t just about letting the kids play; we also save so much money,” says 34-year-old Stacey, a mother of five, who visited the café after the afternoon school run on Thursday.

“Without this we would be at home with the heating on and the children charging their tablets. It’s all right.”

Sitting next to her was Charlene White, 42, who said she felt the strain especially when she was trying to save for Christmas. “My daughter has diabetes and breathing problems, so I have to have the heating on for her; I can’t cut down. The staff are very understanding. They know why we came here,’ she said.

Run by Love Your Neighbour, a national network of churches and charities working in communities, the cafe is open to anyone whether or not they purchase food, and staff can waive charges for those in desperation.

“We’re so busy these days, and kicking people out when we close is a really horrible thing to do, especially when you hear a kid say, ‘Oh, it’s cold at home,'” said Esther Rai, the head of Love My Neighbor in Birmingham. “It has such an impact on the little ones. If they’re huddled under a blanket, they’re not playing. We hear children say their bedrooms are cold because parents can only afford to heat the common areas.”

Esther Rai, the head of Love Your Neighbor in Birmingham, smiles as she stands beside the counter of the cafe on Gas Street St Luke's
Esther Rai, the head of Love Your Neighbor in Birmingham, in Gas Street St Luke’s church pub. Photo: Andrew Fox/The Guardian

“It’s not just helping financially, it’s emotional, it’s a feeling,” said Linda Jay Jordan, 33, as her five-year-old daughter Trinity played. “While you’re here, you don’t think about the bills. It’s warm and welcoming. The atmosphere is wonderful.”

Her utility bill has dropped from £80 to £132 a month and she is struggling to make ends meet. “Before I discovered this place, I was living paycheck to paycheck and my mental health was abysmal. I feel like I met my family here; I’ve come home,’ she said.

To meet the rising demand, there are now dozens of hot rooms across Birmingham in community centres, churches, leisure centers and libraries. All are open to the public and many offer free hot drinks and access to wider support such as debt and benefits advice.

“The fact that we are carrying out this kind of crisis response is a really damning indictment of where we stand as an economy and as a society,” said Birmingham councilor John Cotton, the cabinet member for social justice, community safety and equality, who led to the creation of the service.

“I fear that as the winter starts to intensify, we will see more people struggling, more people who are really scared about how they will get through the winter. We have already seen evidence of that in the increase in the number of people coming to advise operations and seeking help from the council,” he said.

In Castle Vale, a large residential area on the northeastern edge of town, Claudette Griffiths took off her gloves and asked staff to feel her cold hands when she arrived at the warm center of the area.

The 48-year-old is disabled and uses a wheelchair, and was sitting at home in the cold before coming to the Spitfire Advice and Support Center to warm up and have a free hot drink.

“I’m too scared to have the heating on too much because I don’t want my direct debit going up, but I’m home all the time,” she said. “I now sleep in the guest room because it’s easier to warm there.”

She depends on Personal Independence Allowance (Pip) to make ends meet and struggles to find work despite job applications. “I’m actually living off my savings right now,” she said. “What about the pandemic and the cost of living, it’s all coming at once and we can’t handle it.”

While the council has used a variety of hot space locations, everything from swimming pools to children’s centers, the project has highlighted the lack of public spaces that can be turned over for this purpose.

“This is an absolute indictment of the short-sightedness of austerity,” said Cotton. “When you start cutting out services in the public domain, you’re removing an entire network of support that communities rely on.”

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