Inside a warm bank – where Brits struggling with bills are finding shelter: 'The tea helps a lot'
Wakefield Library opens its doors as a warm bank and community hub, providing a beacon of hope for locals
by: Brontë Schlitz
20 Dec 2023
Jackie is a regular at the craft group. Image: Rebecca Lupton
Wakefield Library sits on the first floor of the council building, just above a local history museum. But if the entrance is imposing, that’s immediately undercut by the table of free tea and coffee that greets patrons as they enter. A coffee machine nearby offers slightly more elaborate beverages for £1.
The library is open to all – staff do not ask for ID or proof of address to register for membership, and there are no late fees or penalties for returning books in a less pristine condition than they were taken out in.
It is also a warm bank – a free space in which people who cannot afford to keep their heating on at home, or do not have a home at all, can come to warm up.
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It is one of more than 7,000 Warm Welcome Spaces established in the last year to respond to the rising cost of living and provide for the 14.4 million people living in poverty and seven million people experiencing chronic loneliness in the UK.
Earlier this year, a relationship breakdown cost Liam everything except the clothes on his back. He now finds himself caught in an impossible situation, living in supported accommodation only open to unemployed people, leaving him struggling to move on. His support worker also recently left their post, and he has been told that they will not be replaced until the new year.
“I’ve been coming here for about a year,” he says. “I started coming just to use the internet for my Jobcentre [benefits claims], but I found myself coming up every day, just using the facilities. I’ve got a few books out at the moment, and sometimes I go on the computers and watch a bit of telly, but the best thing is socialising.
“It’s a warm space, so there’s a few people who I know who come here for a catch-up. It’s so cold, so the cups of tea help a lot. I’ve got to know quite a few new people too. It’s a friendly place.
“I’ve actually told a few people about it, because I know a few other homeless people from the [local poverty alleviation charity] Community Awareness Programme.”
Stories like Liam’s are the driver behind the project, which has “been really successful,” says Marcia Adey, a senior library officer with Wakefield Libraries.
“There were some community groups that were offering a warm bank because they knew that individuals were struggling with heating bills,” says Jo Parkin, community coordination and engagement officer in Wakefield Council’s communities team. “But since Covid, and people needing to have that togetherness, and the cost of living crisis, it became more of an issue, so that’s when library services picked it up.”
The library also offers several free classes, from children’s storytimes and summer reading challenges to a chess club. It also hosts a craft group every Monday morning, led by Andrea. When The Big Issue visits, the women in attendance are working on Christmas cards using different skills that they learnt at the group.
As well as helping participants to develop their confidence and creativity, it also acts as a salve against the UK’s loneliness epidemic.
Carol is painting delicate Christmas trees in watercolours.
“I had to take early retirement so I needed something to fill a gap,” she says. “I knew there was a crafting group here, so I decided to join, and it’s been a godsend.
“It’s easy for me to get to and it gives me so much pleasure. The ladies are lovely – they welcomed me when they were all well-established here, which I am forever grateful for.
She cares for her mum, and the respite the group provides her is invaluable. “It’s about the mindfulness,” she says. “Things are really stressful at home, so to come here for an hour and a half is just lovely.”
Opposite Carol, Jackie creates collages using die-cutting – a process of feeding paper through a machine with metal stencils, in this case in the shape of snowflakes.
“I came to the craft group about 18 months ago,” she says. “I just love it.” Like Carol, she finds it “absolutely brilliant for mindfulness. We’re a good group – we have lots of chats with each other about different things.
“The wellbeing side of things I think is very important. We may not see people on a day-to-day basis, so it actually enables us to chat with people – likeminded people, as well, because we’ve all got that great interest in crafting, and we thoroughly enjoy our Monday mornings.”