A a tear runs down Shama Omar’s face. She describes the pain of her disabled daughter’s death last year, after 29 years of nurturing care. It is a familiar story of delays and exhaustion of health service resources. “If the GP had seen her that day, my daughter would not have died,” she says.
Now she survives on a cooked meal every two weeks, deciding whether to pay council tax, food or water. “I have to take cancer medication, which gives me hot flashes, but I can’t afford to have the fan running all the time,” says Omar. “I had to think about whether to spend £4.60 on the bus here, it could have helped me pack meals for two days.”
Omar is among millions waiting to see what additional support the government might offer for energy bills. The sector regulator will announce another price cap increase on Friday, pushing average household bills to £3,500 a year from October. By January, two-thirds of households in the UK are expected to be fuel poor.
Omar sits across the table in a cozy booth at a community center in Leicester. The property is managed by the Zinthiya Trust, which was founded by charity worker, Zinthiya Ganeshpanchan, to alleviate poverty and provide support for victims of domestic violence. Its work is partly funded by the British Gas Energy Trust, which is increasingly focused on helping its customers and those of other suppliers to pay their gas and electricity bills, as well as helping them with their debts and find extra cash through benefit cheques.
In Leicester, it is immediately apparent that, although soaring energy bills are often presented as a standalone problem, it is in fact just one problem in a pile building up for many people. in complex circumstances.
Part of the Zinthiya The Trust’s work is to help women escape domestic violence, providing them with emotional and practical support. Staff are even concerned about the heating costs of their shelters.
Around us, a coffee morning is barely ending – the women present have been carefully working, drawing butterflies and flowers on canvas bags. Their children are restless as the school holidays approach their final weeks.
Outside, De Montfort University students celebrate their graduation in the sunshine, photographed in their gowns. Inside, the unfolding horror of the reality of the cost of living crisis becomes clearer. The community store sells 60p toilet rolls and pasta by the cup, as budgets are tight. Trust workers tell a cascade of harrowing stories: the elderly person panicked by an incorrect energy bill that amounted to £150,000; the debt-ridden Syrian student caring for her sick brother who struggles to afford the hot temperatures he needs in their apartment; the woman whose supplier refused to talk to her because the bills were in the name of her abusive husband.
“I get scared when someone says ‘winter’,” says Ashy Gosai, who works for the trust, mimicking heart palpitations: “People make this decision: do I feed myself or do I keep my home? Either way, there will be casualties. We live in a country where people want to come and settle, they want to start a new life and that is the life we give to our own people. His colleague Sherin Ali adds: “People also just need emotional support, a smile. It’s very difficult.”
A few doors down, Sharon, Tracy and Gill, none of whom wanted their last name included, work at the Zinthiya Counseling Center where they offer in-depth practical help to everyone from ex-offenders and survivors of abuse to people suffering from serious mental health problems. Many of their customers are from South Asia and need help interpreting communications from their energy company. Some do not realize that utilities have to be paid for.
Some have already spent the first of two £326 cash payments for Universal Credit applicants who landed in July on school uniforms or outings. “It was too tempting for them not to spend it,” Tracy explains through the Covid protective screen. She does a lot of her work on endless calls on hold to energy companies.
Sharon says she still frequently tries to resolve issues stemming from the collapse of dozens of energy suppliers, which has clogged advice lines and caused billing issues. In addition to financial assistance, the trust tries to get people to reduce their energy use, by turning off appliances, installing radiator reflectors and sealing drafts.
A supply of energy-efficient light bulbs welcomes visitors upon their arrival at the centre. Online advice on using microwaves to optimize energy use has generally been ignored, says Ganeshpanchan. “Asian women don’t want to cook baked beans,” she says, nodding at the nearby lentils in the store.
Firdos arrived English speaking from India on a spouse visa in 2018. She shows me where on her wrist her husband used to grab her, describes his relentless verbal abuse. “He fired me. It was very hard, I was completely dependent on him. The trust did everything for me – immigration, housing, food, benefits,” she says.
Staff are clear that there is help available – from universal credit and housing allowance to fuel vouchers and the warm accommodation discount. “But it’s just not going to hit the sides this winter,” Gosai says.
“As [the money-saving expert] Martin Lewis said, you get to a point where there’s nothing left in your toolbox,” says Sharon. ” It’s frustrating. You come to a situation where you cannot help people. We always find a passage but it becomes much more difficult.
Jessica Taplin, chief executive of the British Gas Energy Trust, says the problem is not just about money.
“The financial support this winter will be helpful, but these are very complex lives,” she says. “Every family is different, isn’t it. It’s a canvas. Often the solution is quite transactional, but it takes a lot longer than that – you don’t want to encourage dependency, but you can’t pull the rug out either.”
The government is awaiting the installation of a new Prime Minister on September 5 before unveiling significant budgetary support. For families in dire straits, it can’t happen soon enough.