GLASGOW – As temperatures dropped and a cold winter approached, a community center in the Easterhouse area of Glasgow did what it could to alleviate the hardship: it began offering a warming space to people struggling with heating bills.
The adjoining shopping center had Christmas decorations sparkling, but every other store was empty, a sign of the area’s tough times. Upstairs, Easterhouse Community Church has resorted to gas heaters to keep their parishioners warm.
“You can see the need on people’s faces,” said Stuart Patterson, pastor of the church, of the difficulties many face. “But we love this community.”
Mr Patterson, who grew up in Easterhouse, is among a group of local faith leaders, volunteers, community workers and business owners who have dedicated their lives to helping this long neglected area, which is one of the most economically disadvantaged in Scotland. But with inflation and rising energy costs, they’re finding it harder than ever.
This month, as temperatures plummeted below freezing across Britain during a rare cold snap, the church was a freezing 3 degrees Celsius, or about 37 degrees Fahrenheit, when Mr Patterson opened its doors.
Easterhouse, recognized as one of Scotland’s most deprived areas, is just one of a number of places across the UK where the cost of living crisis is compounding existing strains. Some residents have very real fears that they may not be able to provide for their most basic needs this winter.
An aging late 1960’s shopping center in disrepair, The Lochs offers a snapshot of the decay in lower income communities. The center is full of common spaces and important businesses that many say are needed now more than ever.
However, they are finding it difficult to keep their doors open at the moment as asking prices are through the roof. You are not alone – a recent report by a UK religious research group found that community centres, volunteers and faith groups, seen as the ‘last line of defence’ for those most in need, are under increasing economic pressure.
It doesn’t help that the central heating, which is owned by Glasgow City Council, isn’t working. Shopkeepers have protested, saying they can’t keep up with rent and soaring utility costs while receiving so little in return, but so far there has been no remedy.
Most of the customers seated at Wee Betty’s Cafe, tucked away in a corner of the mall, were still in their winter coats at lunchtime, some rubbing their hands together as the outside temperature dropped to just above freezing. It was hardly warmer in the café.
Bacon was sizzling on the griddle in the cramped kitchen as Shelley Quinn, one of the café’s owners, took a customer order at the counter.
“What scares me, especially with the older ones, is that they’re making a choice between heating and eating,” Ms Quinn said of her customers. “And we can’t even give them that — a warm place.”
In the Easterhouse, a planned social housing building from the 1950s, times were tough even before the cost of living crisis. Efforts to revitalize it began in the early 2000s but have been criticized for being superficial and failing to address entrenched poverty and social decline exacerbated by eroded welfare programs.
“You feel like everyone has problems,” Ms. Quinn said. “The people of Easterhouse have so much to give, but you have to give them something.”
The cafe has avoided raising prices despite rising utility costs, said Ms Quinn, 47, who owns the cafe with her two sisters and sister-in-law. They all grew up in Easterhouse and their father still lives in the area. They said volunteering has been an important part of their business mission since they opened the cafe five years ago.
“I mean, of course we have to pay our bills, but it’s all about the community,” she said. “We just want to help everyone”
Among other things, the sisters visit regulars, help them with errands and provide food for the homeless at Christmas. The cafe has a designated “Chatter and Natter” table — part of a nationwide initiative to combat loneliness — where customers who want to connect can sit for some company.
Betty Connelly, 75, one of the people at the table, visits the café three days a week. She sat with Nan Harrington, 82, and Anna Devlin, 70. The women, who call themselves “the mermaids” because they met at swimming lessons a few years ago, said their visits have been a bright spot in their week.
“If this closes then we have nowhere to go,” Ms Connelly said. “But the heat hasn’t been good for a while and there are a lot of older people coming here.”
City Properties Glasgow, which manages the shopping center for the city council, said in a statement the heating problems were due to aging equipment and that spare parts were no longer available. However, it added that the tenant service charge did not include heating and that it planned to meet with tenants to address their concerns.
The council pointed to schemes to support Glasgow residents this winter, including £105 or about $128 gift cards given to low-income households, vouchers to help people heat their homes and heat centers in to help the city.
But many Easterhouse residents say local and national governments’ response to the crisis has not been enough to calm their fears.
“Mentally it can be quite daunting,” said Leanne Irwin, 42, who usually visits Wee Betty’s for lunch with her mother Joanne Doyle, 65. She fears her money won’t go far enough this winter.
After lunch, the two returned to Ms. Doyle’s house, where Ms. Irwin pointed out small blue, green, and red stickers she had put on her mother’s thermostat as a reminder to keep the heat down to save money to limit.
Ms. Doyle, who suffers from chronic lung and heart disease, lives in public housing for people with health problems. She uses a nebulizer several times a day – a machine that turns liquid medicine into a fine mist that a person can inhale – but says she’s now worried about the cost of plugging in the machine.
“When I’m home I turn off the heating and mostly sit in bed to stay warm,” Ms. Doyle explained. “You just look at your money and you’re like, ‘Where is it going?'”
Meanwhile, community resources feels like it’s closing down, Ms. Doyle said.
Richard McShane, the honorary director of the Phoenix Community Center, has spent years creating a place where locals can come together, turning a once-vacant shop into a thriving multi-purpose space with a sports club, boxing gym and snooker table transformed. Several community groups organize activities in the area.
Because the unit has a separate heating system, it’s significantly warmer than the rest of the mall, and this month it opened two days a week as a residents’ warmth center, which Mr McShane expects will be popular. The center is part of a national grassroots program called Warm Welcome.
But he said he was most concerned about the social isolation some residents are facing and the impact it is having on their mental health.
“It can be doom and gloom for a lot of people here,” said Mr. McShane. “The school is consistently at the bottom of the rankings. But what does that say to the people who live here? That kind of mindset you get stuck in – you accept less in life because you live there.”
A study by the Mental Health Foundation of Scotland found that stress, anxiety and hopelessness related to personal finances are widespread across the country.
Many of the programs at the center are designed to combat that sense of hopelessness, and Mr McShane said he tried to give a positive focus to people and activities that served a purpose.
“The need was to have a place of belonging,” he said. “For me, the main concern here is sustainability.” If the center can’t keep up with costs, Mr. McShane said, “Where will people go?”