‘I’m petrified’: Leeds faces up to winter under cost of living crisis

In Harehills, one of the most deprived areas of the UK, people already queue for three hours before the food bank opens.

Source > Guardian

By Robyn Vinter

Sun 11 Sep 2022 16.14 BST

There are very few places in the UK these days where £2 would get you a cheese toastie. But at Meeting Point Cafe, in the diverse inner-city ward of Harehills in north Leeds, the prices are based on what customers can afford – which, in many cases, is not very much.

“We have people who are sleeping on streets waiting for us at seven o’clock when we open and when wintertime comes they’re going to need something warm to eat,” said Pauline Burrow, who runs the cafe, which is subsidised by the Methodist church. It is a “safe space” to eat, have a conversation with a friendly face and, crucially this winter, keep warm.

Previously it has hosted weekly drop-in sessions providing meals free to anyone who needs one, but it is reliant on grant funding and this winter there are no guarantees yet.

In her 28 years running the cafe, Burrow has never seen such destitution, and she is desperately worried for the winter. “It’s tragic,” she said. “I think people are going to either starve to death or freeze to death.”

As one of the most deprived places in the UK, the cost of living crisis is particularly acute in Harehills, said Salma Arif, a Labour councillor here.

Harehills, Leeds. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer
Harehills, Leeds. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

She said: “If I’m being really honest, it petrifies me. I’m terrified of what is to come – it’s just going to be unprecedented.”

She said as it stands, people queue for three hours before the food bank opens and she recently spoke to a car dealer who said people were already selling their cars to pay their bills.

The Compton Centre, a large community centre in the middle of Harehills, is one of many places across Leeds that the council said will provide a warm place for people to sit, with refreshments and activities. Already serving as an advice centre, library, gym, language school, police station, youth centre and cafe, it will also be a refuge for people unable to afford heating.

One person fearing the worst is Michelle Thompson, who lives a few streets away. She is on universal credit and needs to keep warm due to COPD and severe asthma.

Thompson is on a prepayment electric meter, which are more expensive and tend to be for people who are financially insecure. “I just put £25 in and it didn’t even last me a week,” she said. “I don’t even have a lot of stuff on, it’s just running out so much. It’s getting really bad – I don’t know what I’ll do.”

Like a large portion of the Harehills population, she lives in a redbrick back-to-back, a type of high-density housing that is so notoriously cold and damp that most were pulled down in the 1950s.

As a result, in Harehills, 96% of dwellings have an energy efficiency rating of D or below, compared with 63% of the UK.

Bringing these homes up to the government target of C would save £706 a year on energy bills, according to research by economics consultancy Cebr, commissioned by the retailer Kingfisher.

But as two-thirds of homes in Harehills are owned by private landlords or housing associations, tenants have no control over the energy efficiency of their homes and have to do what they can to prepare in other ways.

“We’ve had some families asking already for warm coats and hats for their children, and that’s even in the summer months, and I think we’re going to get loads more requests for that kind of thing,” said Ellie Brown, the manager of Leeds Baby Bank, which was set up five years ago to provide items like clothes, nappies, food and toiletries, as well as furniture and equipment, to those in need.

Brown said the charity was seeing a month-on-month increase in demand but this has not been met with an increase in donations, despite having a small army of people who knit blankets and hats for children.

She said: “I do think one of the impacts of the cost of living crisis is that people who may have donated in the past might be selling things instead.”

It is a somewhat similar story at St Aidan’s church, where volunteers serve a free three-course hot meal for upwards of 30 people every Thursday. It is run by FoodCycle, a national charity that relies on collections of surplus food from retailers in order to provide the meals.

Labour councillor Salma Arif at the Compton Community Centre, Harehills, Leeds. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer
Labour councillor Salma Arif at the Compton Community Centre, Harehills, Leeds. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

While more people are coming along each week and the charity has the physical capacity to host them, competition means it is becoming harder to get hold of waste food.

Alanah McGovern, the project leader in Leeds, said: “I guess perhaps people are buying more food that has been reduced – that might be one of the reasons – or [supermarkets are] donating it elsewhere, to other charities.”

During the school holidays, they have been able to collect food from a nearby Waitrose, which in term time will instead go to a local primary school. “I don’t know the details, but I suspect they’re giving it out to parents and families,” she said.

Community groups, charities and the council in Harehills are doing their best, but help is desperately needed from the government, Arif said. “We don’t have the levers to take people out of poverty, or to stop the cost of living crisis. That solely rests on the shoulders of the government.

“They must act soon, otherwise we’ll be in a very dark place.”

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