Media release: Edinburgh homelessness charity appeals for local volunteers

CARDS_Volunteer_Paul_McCay 1

EDINBURGH homelessness charity, Rowan Alba, is appealing for local volunteers to support its CARDS befriending service, which works with people across the city, providing vital support and social contact to reduce isolation.

The Community Alcohol Related Damages Service (CARDS) was set up by Rowan Alba in 2010.

Those who are referred to CARDS by health care specialists, GPs, hospitals and mental health services have, for various reasons, become isolated and developed a problematic relationship with alcohol. CARDS volunteers are there to provide vital social contact and to listen without judgment.

A team of 60 volunteers deliver one-to-one befriending support to 80 clients across the city, usually meeting once a week to provide emotional support, helping clients build their social skills and confidence to engage with their local community.

Since getting support from CARDS, 69 per cent of clients have reported improved mental health, 77 per cent have reduced their alcohol intake and 80 per cent said life was less chaotic. 69 per cent said they have spent less time in hospital.

Paul McCay, a CARDS volunteer for seven years, said: “The people we work with are socially isolated, many have anxiety and are disconnected from their communities.

“Just having someone who consistently shows up, without judgment, to listen, have a chat, listen to music, go for a walk or a coffee can’t be underestimated. The regular contact that volunteers provide can be both life-changing and life-saving.”

As a crucial befriending service for older people with long term alcohol issues and at risk of crisis, CARDS is just one of a number of services delivered by Rowan Alba in supporting some of Edinburgh’s most vulnerable, isolated and homeless people. The charity aims to break the cycle of homelessness for people deemed ‘un-houseable’ by other services.

Rowan Alba pioneered the home for life concept with Thorntree Street in Leith, providing permanent homes for older men with a long-term history of rough sleeping and street drinking. The charity’s second home for life property will open in Peffermill in 2022.

Rowan Alba also provides temporary supported accommodation at Stramullion in Pilton, supporting women with complex needs to move out of homelessness and into their own home.

The charity has years of expertise working with older people with alcohol issues; these issues may stem from years of health inequality, trauma, homelessness, family breakdown, mental health issues time spent in prison or abuse. Many have developed Alcohol Related Brain Damage (ARBD), which has left them physically and emotionally damaged and socially isolated.

Tracey Stewart, Volunteer Service manager at Rowan Alba, said: “We have all faced periods of isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic but for those who are referred to CARDS, social isolation is something many have lived with for years.

“The one-to-one befriending service provided by our volunteers provides vital emotional support, helping clients to re-learn how to manage a trusting relationship with another person.

“CARDS urgently needs more volunteers to support our clients across Edinburgh, so we are looking for people who can provide compassionate support for individuals who have had a difficult relationship with alcohol now or in the past. Ideally you will have had experience in a role where managing relationships is key. Being able to listen without judgment and understand the benefit of human contact is vital.

“Our best volunteers are the kind of people whom you end up chatting to at a bus stop and go away being moved by the interaction.

“It’s as simple as that. We provide all the support, training and guidance that you need. Half of our staff started as volunteers and 85 per cent of people who were looking to get in to social care as a career find themselves within employment within the first year after volunteering. Those who come for the experience hang around for much longer. It’s a community in itself.”

Comprehensive training and support are provided and volunteers are asked to make a time commitment of at least one year.

Full details of the application process are available at


For further information about Rowan Alba, please contact Gaynor Simpson on 07790 104073 or email

Photo shows CARDS volunteer, Paul McCay

Notes for editors:

  • Rowan Alba was founded by Helen Carlin in 1997 and is the only organisation in the UK to offer a home for life. They provide services which help alleviate homelessness across Scotland, including their home for life properties and support to reduce social isolation through their volunteer befriending service, CARDS (Community Alcohol Related Damage Service).
  • Since being established in 2010, CARDS has supported over 500 clients across Edinburgh – reducing social isolation and providing vital human contact resulting improvements in mental health and reductions in alcohol intake and hospital stays. “The relationship with the volunteer is the vehicle for positive health and social outcomes.”
  • Rowan Alba opened its first homes for life at Thorntree Street in 2004, providing secure tenancies to older people who have had a history of homelessness and a long-term history of problematic alcohol use.
  • The charity has since developed a number of services in Edinburgh and Kinross which reduce the chances of people becoming homeless or, where this has happened, provide people with the ongoing care and support they need. All Rowan Alba services are framed around addressing social isolation, offering one-to-one support and accepting people as they are.
  • There are estimated over 3,300-plus homeless households in Edinburgh in 2019/20, a five per cent increase on the previous year. Over 300 had experienced rough sleeping.
  • In 2019/20, the number of homeless people housed in temporary accommodation in Edinburgh increased by 23 per cent (Scottish Government).
  • In 2019/20, there were 440 homeless people in the city requiring intensive support for complex needs (Edinburgh City Council).
  • Deaths among homeless people as understood to have risen by more than a third in a year, with almost 1,000 unhoused people dying across the UK in 2020. 176 of these deaths were in Scotland. Less than  three per cent of recorded causes of death are believed to have been directly due to Covid-19 (The Dying Homeless Project, February 2020).
  • Scotland had one of the highest rates of homeless deaths in 2019, with a rate of 52.2 per million population aged 15-74, compared to 18.0 in England and 14.3 in Wales (National Records of Scotland).
  • Alcohol abuse has increased during the coronavirus pandemic, according to the British Liver Trust, which has reported a 500 per cent rise in calls to its helpline since lockdown began in March 2020. Social isolation and a lack of a human connection are major factor behind why some people turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism, issues which the pandemic has only served to exacerbate.

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Contact: Gaynor Simpson
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