Inside the Levenshulme Old Library, there is a room with happy faces on the walls and paper birds hanging from the high ceilings.
There are tables and chairs everywhere, and in one corner is a hot drink station with tea, coffee, and lots of Bourbon biscuits.
An old woman with her hands on a big radiator makes it clear how warm it is.
Throughout the year, the community arts center in south Manchester puts on a number of events and programs, but what they’ve made for every Monday is unlike anything else they do.
Its goal is to meet the needs of the people in the area. For example, artists usually perform for parents with young children.
But anyone who needs it can go to their “Keep Warm Club” and stay warm, charge their devices, or even work for free.
The fact that the venue has to do something like this to make sure its people are safe in such hard times makes it seem less like 2022 and more like a dystopia from the past.
Richard Hirst, the 40-year-old building manager, agrees and says that they are in “survival mode.”
He starts by saying, “I think everyone would rather not be in this situation.”
“We’d much rather be able to say, “Hey, here’s something exciting going on!” Maybe an artist is getting a job.
“It all feels very… survival mode; it feels quite bleak.
“Helping people in need is a big part of our culture, and no matter how well things are going, there are always some people who are getting the short end of the stick.
“But what people in this country are going through right now has never happened before, and it’s not how society usually works.”
Even though they sometimes host events to help the homeless or look for ways to help those who need it most, Richard is now being asked about the Keep Warm Club by people who own homes and have jobs, as well as by parents of kids who go to his kids’ school.
“People who didn’t feel like they were in need or needed help before, now a lot of them are,” he says about the real state of Britain right now.
“When I talk to people, they say, “Oh, this sounds good. I have a job, but I have to work hard to make ends meet, or I work from home on Mondays and do my job on my computer.
“I don’t know how much they make or what their situation is, but just because you have a job doesn’t mean you aren’t in need of money.
“It doesn’t mean you’re safe from all of that.
“Right now, you could have a job and be very busy, but still be poor or at risk of becoming poor.”
The group behind Levenshulme Old Library CIO, which was taken over by locals when it closed as a library five years ago, wants to open the space on other days so that people who can’t make it at the beginning of the week can still use it.
They came up with the idea after getting together to talk about how to solve the biggest problem right now, which is that people are struggling to pay their outrageously high energy bills.
They had also seen clubs like this run in other parts of the country.
“We have a need because people are struggling to pay their energy bills, and they’re also struggling to be in their homes during the day without heat,” says Richard.
“It seems like the tip of the iceberg, where the bigger problem of people’s energy bills and finances gets a lot worse.
“Along with this political chaos, where things seem to change so quickly that it’s hard to plan anything and you don’t know what’s going to happen in a month or two.”
Richard also wants an artist or workshop to take up space in the room to make it less useful. A person who makes board games wants to use it to test models and see how people react.
“We’re thinking of ways to get them into the space that won’t bother people too much, since sometimes people just want to be alone.
But there needs to be something to draw people in as well. It’s about finding the right balance.”
When I went there, there was only one woman there. Her name was Bridget O’Dwyer, and she was 73 years old. She had been warming her hands on the radiator for a few hours.
The retired woman didn’t want her picture taken, so she usually spent Mondays at home wrapped in two padded lumber jackets or going grocery shopping.
She joined the Keep Warm Club after getting a letter from Manchester Cares about different activities and groups. Manchester Cares helps fight loneliness and isolation in the city by bringing together older and younger neighbors.
Bridget doesn’t live too far from the Old Library, so she walked there and was there when it opened at 9:30 a.m.
She says, “I thought it was a great and unique idea.”
“Energy bills rising does worry me. I think there are a lot of worried people. The way things are going now is crazy, and I don’t understand why.”
She can only have a certain number of biscuits because she has diabetes.
She hasn’t talked to anyone else besides me and Richard, but she wants to try again next week, hoping that there will be more people to talk to.
Richard says that they’ve been running the club for four weeks, but they’re still trying to figure out how to get the word out and make people feel comfortable going.
He says that they work on a “no questions asked” basis and that there are no requirements or forms to fill out. It’s a trust-based space.
And if the number of chairs isn’t enough, they’ll figure something out.
“I’m always eager to let people know that asking for help doesn’t take anything away from anyone else,” Richard says.
Last week, there were only five people there, but he thinks it will be a lot busier when it gets colder.
He says, “We have had weather that is not typical for this time of year, and I think that has helped a lot of people save money on their energy bills.”
“But I do think that when we get to November, December, and especially January, when people start to worry more about their money after spending it all on Christmas,…
“I think it will get busier. I think a lot more people will see how real the whole thing is.”