I like whisky. There – I’ve said it. Not a controversial statement – nor a surprise; certainly to those who have known me over the years. I am no expert; I am not one of those whisky aficionados who can sniff the cork of a whisky bottle two weeks after opening the bottle and tell you in which field from which the barley which formed the mash was grown. But I know which whiskies I like and I enjoy them when I can.
Working as I do for an organisation who journeys with people who are either in the tough reality of homelessness or are trying to avoid it, talking about the pleasures of alcohol consumption can be a sensitive subject. In particular, for a significant number of those who are part of our Recovery service, alcohol is not a source of pleasure but pain and struggle. It’s on that basis we rarely have alcohol at our events as we want them to be inclusive. And when we do it’s always done sensitively, paying attention to those for whom this creates a limitation.
Alcohol awareness week is coming next week. It is really important all of us pay attention to the impact of our alcohol consumption physically and mentally. It’s not just counting the units but reflecting on the way it impacts our choices, our capacity, our relationships, our health, our sense of well-being and yes, even our finances.
As Scots, our relationship with alcohol is full of conflicts; its part of our international identity and our economic growth. Whisky generates around £5.5b a year; around 6% of the total Scottish economy and constitutes 20% of UK food and drink exports. Yet its impact on violent crime grows and the effect on Scotland’s poor health is well documented. When I lived aboard – in America for a year in the early 90’s and then a couple of years later backpacking round the world for two years – the discovery of my Scottishness led quickly to assumptions about my drinking habits. In truth I was happy for those assumptions to be made as it usually led to people buying me drinks despite the fact I am not entirely convinced I really want my heritage to be defined by our national capacity for alcohol consumption.
There are also many assumptions made about the connection to alcohol and those whose reality is homelessness. Like the myths about alcohol and what it is to be Scottish, they are not always as they seem. There’s no doubt alcohol plays a role in many peoples journey into homelessness; though for many it’s as much a symptom or method of coping on the way down as it is a cause in itself.
A recent Scottish government report showed 8% of the Scottish population had experienced homelessness at some point in their lives. Only 24% identified Drug or Alcohol dependency as an issue in their homelessness. It’s still a large number and still needs a strong and compassionate response but it’s not the only challenge or even the main challenge people presenting as homeless needed support with. Even when it is the primary presenting issue, it’s never the whole story.
Fundamental to Cyrenians approach to those we journey with is never to simply focus on or blame a symptom – like challenges with alcohol. It’s always to look deeper, to seek a more holistic understanding of a persons story, their context and their capacity for seeking change at the point our shared journey begins. Awareness about the impact of alcohol on a person’s world is about much more than what can be counted or what can be experienced superficially. It’s also about understanding the journey to homelessness has many starting points, of which a struggle with alcohol is only one.
13th November 2018