A warm bank leader has said people must be prepared to admit when they have crossed “the line” into hardship this winter. Sarah Forbes of Community Alliance Broxbourne and East Herts runs one of more than 75 warm spaces listed on the Hertfordshire County Council website.
Since 2007, Community Alliance has opened the doors to its hubs in Hertford, Stanstead Abbotts and Waltham Cross to support the health and wellbeing of residents. But this Christmas, Sarah fears adults who have never before faced the choice between heating and eating could struggle to recognise the point at which they need a helping hand.
“If you’ve never been in a situation where you have not been able to afford to feed your family, are you going to approach somebody or will there be a mindset that because you might have a job, you are not entitled to help?” asked Sarah. “Where’s the line? Do people who genuinely need help fear a stigma? Do they feel too embarrassed to admit ‘I can’t do it’?”
Sarah said increasing numbers of residents who do not claim working-age benefits are turning to the service – and said she is ready to welcome more visitors to Community Alliance over the winter. She added: “Cost of living is all anyone talks about and we are trying to meet that demand in our activities, such as the launch of new ‘Slow Cooking on a Budget’ courses. Funding has changed. Everything is focused on the cost of living, giving people somewhere to go, and food and energy bills. Although we have long-term aims for the organisation, we are planning up to next April.
“That’s our main focus. Hopefully, after April, we will be able to focus on our projects but providing a warm space is our focus for the next three months. The government has to look at what is going on on the ground. They have to come into the communities and feel the fear. People are scared.”
On Tuesday, Community Alliance opens up its Hertford Hub for an “Expression through Art” session which is aimed at men and women – “anybody who wants to de-stress” – of all ages. Sharon, from Hatfield, attends the afternoon session. She said: “When I’m here, I can focus on the art and that’s a distraction from everything else which is going on outside. I think there is a lot of negativity at the moment so it is a good place to come and chat. I found coming here really helped me – we chat about everything and it’s very relaxed.”
A place to ‘let loose’
Fran Donaghy, a volunteer, led a short art course with Community Alliance earlier in 2022 and has continued to run the Tuesday sessions. She said: “The project started as a course over a couple of weeks, but we felt there was a need for it so we kept going.” Fran said that although each session has a theme, the thinking behind the sessions is that they are not classes but instead activities – with materials provided, or visitors can bring their own.
She added: “We all chat about the cost of living together but these art sessions are the sort of thing we wanted to do – a warm space with coffee, tea and chocolate where visitors can come and go as they please. Freedom of expression is very important, so having a place where attendees can come to paint or chat about how they feel and let loose is important.”
Community Alliance’s Hertford Hub appears in the Hertfordshire County Council warm spaces directory alongside churches, synagogues, youth hostels, day centres, charity buildings and libraries throughout the county. Council leader Richard Roberts (Con, Kings Langley) acknowledged there are “unprecedented pressures” on families who are struggling to afford energy bulls.
He said: “At the heart of our warm spaces initiative are all the volunteer, charity and faith groups, libraries and family centres who are opening up their spaces to support their local community. The Household Support Fund, which comes from central government and is distributed through the Warm Herts Fund, enables these groups to extend their hours, provide additional activities and food and drinks to the community.
“The cost of living will impact people in many different ways. Hertfordshire County Council is working closely with our NHS colleagues providing extra funding to citizens advice, Herts Help and the money advice unit to support Hertfordshire residents when they need it.” The county-wide warm spaces directory is on the Hertfordshire County Council website (https://www.hertfordshire.gov.uk/warmspaces). Community Alliance Broxbourne and East Herts runs a What’s On webpage for its sessions.