As Britain goes through a cost of living crisis, public libraries and other community hubs are providing “warm spaces” for vulnerable members of society to stay safe and have access to free food this winter.
In Ipswich, a town in eastern England, local resident Marina Flynn has been a regular visitor to the Chantry Library for the past year.
“It’s a great warm place to come to, obviously with the cost of heating these days,” Flynn said as the outside temperature hovered around 5ºC (41ºF).
“It’s been as cold in my house as it has been outside” this winter, added Flynn, 54, who is unemployed and relies on the library’s food bank, which offers donated staples and hygiene products for free.
“The food bank I use a lot because of the cost of living crisis, I can’t afford food,” said Flynn, who is competing to hear him against the murmur of babies and toddlers walking home with caregivers after a music event organized by the Library.
Britain’s public libraries are funded by the government through local councils, but have suffered major budget cuts in recent years, leaving many fundraising and relying on volunteers to bridge the gaps.
‘Areas of deprivation’
With inflation soaring worldwide last year due to a sharp rise in energy costs, a charity seeking to improve Britain’s library services has drawn up national guidelines for organizations looking to install “warm spaces” ahead of the current winter.
Local councils are using the guidelines – the brainchild of money-saving expert and TV personality Martin Lewis – to help set up warm spaces in other community venues such as churches and village halls.
“The services have been well used,” said Nick Poole, chief executive of the CILIP charity library.
“It was mainly focused on areas where you have multiple deprivation or older and vulnerable communities,” he said.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government is subsidizing electricity and gas bills this winter, but households and businesses are still paying far more than a year ago.
Poole would prefer that extended support services did not exist in thousands of UK libraries.
“But if they do, we want them to be safe, welcoming and inclusive.”
In one corner of the Chantry Library is a small cafe that offers free hot drinks and soup on Sundays.
“We have customers come in who are sad and we help them as much as we can,” said Mark Dyer, the restaurant’s 48-year-old owner.
Poole said it seemed like a “natural extension of the function” of libraries to be safe and warm spaces.
“People don’t want to admit they’re in trouble. People have used the services (cost-of-living increases), but they don’t like to talk about it too much,” he added.
Visitors whose needs cannot be met by the library are referred to other support groups.
“I live alone so I come here for socializing,” said Flynn, who attends a weekly men’s group for conversation.
Later in the day, a group of women gather around a table to knit, while donated clothing hangs next to the library’s entrance on “kindness racks.”
“We’ve had a clothes rack since before the cost of living crisis,” said Chantry Library manager Vicki Mann.
“But it’s grown with the fact that we don’t just offer children’s clothing now … and we can’t complement it enough.”
According to Poole, libraries are “always there to meet local needs”.
“But at the same time, we can’t do everything for everyone without money… It’s very difficult for libraries to survive. They cost money to heat and light.” – AFP