Struggling to afford heating bills, Britons turn to 'warm banks' to keep out the cold
The war in Ukraine has pushed natural gas prices up sharply.
LONDON (Reuters) - Every morning on her days off, Mary Obomese wraps up in her winter coat and heads to Woolwich Centre Library in southeast London, where she spends two hours on the computer and keeps herself warm.
The 52-year-old, who works as a healthcare assistant in Britain’s National Health Service (NHS), is among those who are turning to ‘warm banks’ - designated spaces where people can go if they cannot afford to turn on their heating at home.
The war in Ukraine has pushed natural gas prices up sharply, exacerbating a cost-of-living crisis in Britain, where inflation rates are among the highest in the developed world.
Obomese, who lives in a council flat and earns about 1,500 pounds ($1,828) per month, is the main earner in her family, with her two children still in education and her husband working as a freelance journalist.
The family has been operating an ‘on-off’ system with their heating, turning it on in the mornings and then off for most of the day, then intermittently in the evenings when the children return from school and university. When they get cold, Obomese said, they wrap up in their coats or sit on the sofa with blankets.
Obomese’s family is in the 4% of Britons who reported being behind on their energy bills, according to a December survey of more than 2,500 individuals by the Office of National Statistics (ONS). The family had to defer last month’s payments and are fearful they will have to do the same again this month.
"It’s really hard to see them like ‘but mummy, I’m cold, I’m cold,’" Obomese said, speaking during a cold snap that led to heavy snowfall and freezing temperatures.
She said she now uses a whistling kettle instead of an electric one, in order to keep costs down, and keeps hot water for coffee in a flask after boiling, to avoid heating the water again.
Even though warm banks are providing a refuge for those otherwise trapped in cold homes, library manager Amy Jackson says there is still a stigma attached to using them.
"I think a lot of people are kind of, unfortunately, embarrassed and a bit ashamed to admit that they’re struggling sometimes," Jackson said. "So promoting our clubs and our warm spaces as different things really kind of makes it more approachable for them."
She added that it was "such a shame that warm banks actually have to exist in this day and age," and that the service was being used by a wide range of people, including people sleeping rough.
Many Britons have also been struggling to afford basic necessities, with the prices of food and non-alcoholic beverages rising at the fastest rate since 1977 in the 12 months to October.
Obomese said her family had survived on just rice and pasta earlier this year after they ran out of money to buy food, with her children asking, "mummy, how can we be like this when we are in the UK?"
Her main concern now is whether the family will be able to afford Christmas presents, with her daughter’s birthday also falling on Christmas Day.
"We will see. The week is not ended yet, so we will see," she said, wiping away tears.