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The voice of Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

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Charity CEO and founder to stand down after 26 years

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Helen Carlin started Rowan Alba in 1997 after working as a housing visitor. 

The founder and CEO of an Edinburgh-based housing charity is to step down after 26 years at the helm. 

Helen Carlin started Rowan Alba in 1997 with the aim of creating a new approach to homelessness which also addressed the strategic issues behind it.

She began her career as a Housing Visitor at the City of Edinburgh Council in 1985, and following a variety of jobs with housing associations, was seconded from Age Concern Scotland to the Novas Ouverture Group. 

Through this work, Helen saw the need for long-term supported accommodation for homeless people and began a discourse with City of Edinburgh Council about how this type of accommodation could be created.

Rowan Alba’s first service was at-home community support for people who were in danger of becoming homeless due to a problematic relationship with alcohol. 

The working practices and compassionate approach Helen developed through this service were extended in 2004 to a 12 flat Homes-for-life Supported Accommodation centre on Thorntree Street in Leith, created in partnership with Bield Housing Association and City of Edinburgh Council.

Thorntree Street has delivered 24-hour support for the past 19 years, giving a home to many men who were deemed unsuitable for any other form of accommodation.

Helen Carlin, outgoing CEO of Rowan Alba, said: “There is an answer to street homelessness. We are the only organisation in the UK offering homes-for-life to those with a history of repeat homelessness. 

“Current Scottish Government plans do not accommodate the significant numbers of rough sleepers and repeat homeless people. Rowan Alba know these people well and these are the people whom we support every day at Thorntree Street. 

“The development at Thorntree Mill delivers the same pioneering service, offering safe and secure permanent accommodation, support with physical and emotional health and help with accepting and managing alcohol use for service users.

“I am enormously grateful to our funding partners, our staff and our volunteers.”

Under Helen’s direction Rowan Alba has created several other services bringing a strategic approach to homelessness. In her long career, Helen’s work has touched the lives of some of the most vulnerable and misunderstood people in society, culminating in the opening of Thorntree Mill, Rowan Alba’s second homes-for-life in September 2022.

Helen will be replaced by Karen Barr from Friday, March 31. 

Karen’s extensive experience includes roles for Angus Council, Home in Scotland and was the CEO of Abbeyfield Scotland Ltd from 2018-2022.

Karen Barr, interim CEO of Rowan Alba, said: “I am delighted to carry on the fantastic work of Rowan Alba in providing vital services to the most vulnerable in our society. 

“To do this in a safe and secure environment is a privilege, Helen has so much to be proud of and her legacy is substantial. 

“I will continue to develop the Thorntree Model and look forward to working with the amazing staff who make a difference to the lives of others on a daily basis.”