Seeking heat and community during a long Scotland winter
By Megan Specia
As temperatures dropped and a cold winter approached, a community center in the Easterhouse neighborhood of Glasgow did what it could to help ease the hardship: It began offering a warming space for people struggling with the costs of heating their homes.
In the adjacent shopping center, Christmas decorations twinkled overhead, but every second shop lay vacant, a sign of the area’s hard times. Upstairs, the Easterhouse Community Church has resorted to using gas space heaters to keep its congregants warm.
“You can see the hardship on people’s faces,” Stuart Patterson, the church’s pastor, said of the difficulties many are face. “But we love this community.”
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 supporting this long-neglected area, one of the most economically deprived in Scotland. But with inflation and energy costs soaring, they are finding it harder than ever.
This month, as temperatures plunged below freezing across Britain during a rare cold snap, the church was a frigid 3 degrees Celsius, or around 37 degrees Fahrenheit, when Patterson was opening its doors.
Easterhouse, considered one of the most deprived areas in Scotland, is only one of a number of places across Britain where the cost-of-living crisis is compounding preexisting strains. Some residents have very real fears that they may not be able to provide for their most basic needs this winter.
The Lochs, an aging shopping center dating to the late 1960s that has fallen into disrepair, offers a snapshot of the deterioration in lower-income communities. The center is full of community spaces and essential businesses that many say are needed now more than ever.
At the moment, though, they are finding it difficult to keep their doors open, with supply prices through the roof. They are not alone — a recent report from a British faith-based research group noted that community hubs, volunteers and faith groups, considered a “last line of defense” for the most needy, are under growing economic pressure.
It does not help that the heat in the center, owned by the Glasgow City Council, is not working. Shop owners have protested, saying they cannot keep up with the rent and rising supply costs while getting so little in return, but so far there has been no remediation.
Most of the customers seated in Wee Betty’s Cafe, tucked into a corner of the shopping center, still had their winter coats on as they ate lunch, some rubbing their hands together as temperatures outside plunged to just above freezing. In the cafe, it was barely any warmer.
Bacon sizzled on the griddle in the narrow kitchen as Shelley Quinn, one of the cafe’s owners, took a customer’s order at the counter.
“What scares me, especially with the older ones, is they are deciding between heating or eating,” Quinn said of her customers. “And we can’t even give them that — a warm place.”
In Easterhouse, made up of planned social housing built in the 1950s, times had already been tough before the cost-of-living crisis. Efforts at a revival began in the early 2000s but have been criticized as superficial and failing to address deep-rooted poverty and social decline made worse by hollowed-out social programs.
“You feel like everyone is struggling,” Quinn said. “The people in Easterhouse have so much to give, but you have to give them something.”
The cafe has avoided raising prices despite the increase in supply costs, said Quinn, 47, who owns the cafe with her two sisters and their sister-in-law. They all grew up in Easterhouse, and their father still lives in the area. They said that volunteer work is an important part of their business mission, and has been 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 everybody.”
The sisters check in on regulars, help them run errands and serve food to the homeless at Christmas, among other efforts. The cafe has a designated “Chatter and Natter” table — part of a nationwide initiative intended to combat loneliness — where customers looking to connect with others can sit for some company.
Betty Connelly, 75, one of the people at the table, visits the cafe three days a week. She was sitting 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 were a bright spot in their week.
“If this closes, we would have nowhere to go,” Connelly said. “But the heat hasn’t been good for a while, and there are a lot of elderly who come in here.”
City Properties Glasgow, which manages the shopping center for the City Council, said in a statement that the heating issues were a result of aging equipment and that replacement parts were no longer available. But it added that the service charge for tenants did not include heating, and that it planned to meet with tenants to address their concerns.
The council pointed to programs to support the residents of Glasgow this winter, including gift cards of 105 pounds, or about $128, that were given to low-income households, vouchers to help people heat their homes and warming centers around the city.
By January, an estimated 61.5% of Scottish households will be living in fuel poverty, meaning they will spend more than 10% of their net income on fuel, according to a study by the Child Poverty Action group. The burden of the high cost of living will not be evenly distributed, and those from lower-income households will bear the brunt, an analysis from the Scottish government shows.
Richard McShane, the volunteer director of the Phoenix Community Center, has spent years trying to establish a place for locals to come together, converting a once-vacant shop into a thriving multiuse space equipped with a sports club, boxing gym and snooker table. Several community groups organize activities in the space.
Since the unit has a separate heating system, it is significantly warmer than the rest of the shopping center, and this month it opened as a warming center two days a week for local residents that McShane expects will be popular. The center is part of a national grassroots scheme called Warm Welcome.
But he said he was most worried about the social isolation some residents faced and the effect on their mental health.
“It can be doom and gloom for a lot of people here,” McShane said. “The school is consistently in the bottom of the ranks. But what does that tell people that live here? That sort of mindset you get stuck in — you accept less in life because of where you live.”
A study from the Mental Health Foundation of Scotland found that stress, anxiety and hopelessness over personal finances were widespread across the nation.
Many of the programs at the center are geared toward combating that sense of hopelessness, and McShane said he had tried to provide a positive focus for people and activities that gave a purpose.
“The need was to have a place of belonging,” he said. “My biggest concern here is sustainability.” If the center is unable to keep up with costs, McShane said, “where are people going to go?”