At first glance, the scene at a church in West London looks and sounds like any afterschool club where kids play and engage in art projects. But families gather there for more than fun and games — going to keep warm, if only for a few hours.
Once a week, Our Lady of Fatima Church in London opens its doors to anyone needing a warm space, and maybe a warm meal, so families don't have to heat their homes between school time and bedtime, as heating costs soar.
"It's really good to know that there is somewhere where, if you need it, you can come and get warm, get a hot meal, let the kids play," said Emma Harper, who like many people in Britain has seen her heating bill triple this year. The mother of two young children already owes more than $1,200.
"These houses are really, really cold," she said. "There's a really bad draft. My son's room has got really bad, damp black mold all over the wall, from the outside walls."
The "warm bank" at the church is part of a program of local councils, charities and businesses providing a little help, with places like libraries, bakeries, theaters and opera houses opening their doors. There are nearly 4,000 "warm banks" across the country, helping address a crisis so severe that countless households will be forced to choose today between heating and eating.
The initiative has been seen simultaneously as ingenious and horrifying — that millions of people in one of the top-10 richest countries in the world are struggling just to stay warm.
Average annual energy bills have surged 96% this year to roughly $3,000. Soaring prices have coincided with plummeting temperatures that are 35-40 degrees lower than average, hovering below freezing for days.
Double-digit inflation (10.5% in December in the U.K.) and the global energy crisis due, in part, to the war in Ukraine, have hit Britain especially hard.
The "warm bank" at Our Lady of Fatima Church is hosted by Father Richard Nesbitt, who said it is a "response to the cost-of-living crisis."
"But in the way that we've done it, we've absolutely tried to do everything we can to make it not feel like a charity project," he said.
Richard and his volunteers do what they can to remove the stigma of a "heating handout."
"I mean, the warmth that you feel when you come in here is not about the central heating, absolutely," he said. "It's about the warmth of the welcome. It's the love and the cooking, the fun and the games."