Sunderland warm hub a 'Godsend' as people face the stark choice of eating or heating this winter as cost of living crisis escalates

Washington residents have described the warm hub at Building Blocks Day Centre as a “Godsend” when faced with the “choice of eating or heating”, but have stressed that such support networks “shouldn’t be necessary” in modern society.

The warm hub in Concord opened this month (November) and provides people in the local community with somewhere they can go to keep warm during the winter months while also enjoying a free hot drink and warm meal.

The hub is one of 55 to have been established across the city as people struggle to cope with the rise in energy bills which is currently capped at £2,500 for an average family, a rise of 27 per cent from the previous £1,971 and almost double last winter’s cap of £1,277.

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Coupled with inflation at a 41 year high of 11.1 per cent, causing food prices to rocket, many people are struggling to cope with balancing the costs of heating their homes and putting food on the table.

Building Blocks manager Lee Nicholson, 43, said: “People coming into the centre and cafe had been saying how cold they are in their homes and that they couldn’t afford to put the heating on. I know from my own energy bills which have tripled and people who are struggling simply can’t afford to pay the current costs.

"There are people who come to the centre who have children with disabilities. Many of these children need to be kept warm and electricity is also needed for equipment in their homes, but they are getting no additional support.

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"We’ve always seen ourselves as a community hub and so we were really keen to open as a warm hub and help local people who are struggling. As well as providing a place to keep warm, it’s also a place for people to meet who may be in a similar situation, and it reduces social isolation over the winter months.”

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Building Blocks Day Centre manager Lee Nicholson, making hot drinks for people using the centre's warm hub. Picture by FRANK REID

One person to benefit from the warm hub is single mum, Ashleigh Smith, who has been on benefits since losing her job as a care assistant during the Covid pandemic.

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Ashleigh, 38, said: “I come here five days a week and it’s really hard for people out there at the moment. I do a daily shop and everything that used to be one pound is now £1.25.

"I’m living with my parents at the moment, and if it wasn’t for the support I get from them then I’d really be struggling.”

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Single mum of three children, Leanne Bland, 36, who’s also currently on benefits, added: “I’ve definitely been in the position of having to think whether I put the heating on or eating. I’m having to rely on help from my mother as the money I get simply doesn’t cover the cost of everything now.

Building Blocks manager Lee Nicholson is keen to help the local community but feels warm hubs shouldn't be necessary in modern society. Picture by FRANK REID
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"I’m getting help from my family, but I obviously feel guilty about having to do this.”

Leanne also suffers from depression and has benefited from the social side of the hub.

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She added: “The hub has been a massive help in that you can come in and speak with people in a similar situation, rather than sitting in the house and getting depressed. Lee and the staff are so supportive, but people really shouldn’t have to be resorting to food banks and warm hubs to get by.”

Friend Shauna Prudhoe, 25, who is also a single mum, added: “In recent months things have definitely been more of a struggle and I have been faced with the choice of eating or heating.

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Washington resident Ashleigh Smith making use of one of the computers at the warm hub. Picture by FRANK REID

"I’m getting help from my family but this just shows that what you are expected to live on is not enough. People shouldn’t be having to ask for free food or coming to hubs to keep warm.”

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In addition to keeping warm, the hub also has access to computers which people can use for education and job research and applications. The centre also runs booster Maths and English classes as well as courses in hair and beauty, cooking, and working with children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

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Parents can also benefit from a school uniform exchange facility.

Ashleigh said: “I can come to the hub and apply for jobs without having to use my own heating and electricity. This is a brilliant service.”

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Leanne added: “I’ve done all the courses, which will hopefully help me to get back into work, and also used the uniform exchange. This place has been a real Godsend.”

Leanne Bland in the Building Blocks warm hub. Leanne, 36, said people are facing the very real choice of eating or heating this winter. Picture by FRANK REID
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The hub is open Monday and Tuesday 9.30am to 3pm, Wednesday 4pm to 6pm, Thursday 10am to 2pm, Friday 9.30am to 11.30am and Saturday 10am to 2pm.

Lee said: “The warm hub is very much part of our ethos of helping the community but it shouldn’t be necessary in 2022, particularly when you see the billions of pounds of profits being made by the big energy companies.”

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Shaunna Prudhoe is having to rely on help from her parents to make ends meet. . Picture by FRANK REID