Aaron Hendry in Tāmaki Makaurau CBD, where he says alcohol marketing and bottle stores compound the trauma of youth homelessness.

As the youth housing service leader for the social development charity Lifewise NZ, Aaron Hendry’s job requires him to deal in complexities. Many of the people he works with face complex issues, and addressing those issues can require complex approaches.  

But there are a few simple things that would make his job easier, and the lives of the rangatahi he aims to help better. He reckons limiting the number of liquor stores would be a good start. 

Too much too soon

“One of the challenges young people speak to me about is the density of bottle stores,” Aaron says. “I often have conversations where someone says, ‘I want to cut back on my drinking; this isn’t working for me and I recognise that,’ but they are surrounded by advertising and bottle shops.”

When Aaron says the people he works with are surrounded, he’s not talking metaphorically. 

“There are far too many [bottle stores] in concentrated areas where our most marginalised communities are; one almost every 100 metres. It’s not necessary. The ease of access is a problem, and so is the willingness of people to sell to people who are too young.” 

Aaron is concerned about the level of alcohol advertising, too.

“When you walk down the street, alcohol is being marketed to you constantly – you don’t get a choice in that,” he says. That normalisation of alcohol, the way it becomes embedded in our lives, starts early. 

“Kids get alcohol marketed to them from a very young age; in our sports clubs we can have young people with a dangerous, damaging drug written on their chests [via clothing sponsorships]. That has an effect. Those images being associated with your sport and your heroes in a sporting world, that has an effect. I’d like to see that tightly regulated.” 

Homelessness and alcohol harm

Aaron believes more needs to be done at a government level to limit the number of bottle stores and regulate alcohol advertising. He admits, however, that alcohol harm is a multi-faceted problem requiring a variety of solutions – more complexities – particularly when working, as he does, with young people who are experiencing homelessness. 

“Experiencing homelessness is in itself traumatic,” he explains, “it comes with a whole range of different harms. But even preceding that, often people in that situation have already experienced a range of traumas. So what we see is that young people use alcohol as a way of dealing with what they’re going through. When people don’t have a safe place to be and you’re not able to connect them to healthy coping strategies, it’s a way for people to get by.”   

Additionally, young people experiencing homelessness can become victims of others’ alcohol use. 

“Young people are the most vulnerable and the ones who end up being abused or harmed just by being out there [on the streets], and alcohol definitely plays a part in that.

If someone is abusing alcohol and they’re living in their own whare or home, there’s a way to deal with that in a healthier, safer way. But if you’re on the street, that spills out of the living room into our walkways.”

The importance of housing

As someone who works with young people who experience homelessness, it’s perhaps not surprising that Aaron sees suitable housing as a key to tackling alcohol harm in the community.

“Sometimes the emphasis gets put on the addiction, not what lies behind it,” he says. “A young person on the street is not going to get into recovery while they’re in that situation and still being traumatised, so there’s a need to provide that stability and safety [of housing]. We see over and over again that once people are housed and supported, they are able to make better choices and develop the coping mechanisms they need. Putting someone in rehab for six months then dropping them back on the streets won’t take us anywhere.”

That Aotearoa has a housing shortage will be news to no one. People may not realise, though, that there is a desperate lack of appropriate emergency accommodation, too, particularly for young people, and that can create further problems for people suffering from alcohol harm.

“You’ve got a highly concentrated group of people who are struggling with complex challenges in one space,” Aaron says. “It doesn’t create a healing environment. Now think about a kid you care about: would you put them in that environment with adults going through recovery or struggling in other ways?”

Valuing the vulnerable

Aaron urges all of us, but lawmakers in particular, to think about the reasons we adopt policies and enact legislation.

“When I think of these issues – housing, alcohol harm and regulation – the question I ask is: what do we value most? Who should politicians prioritise in terms of making sure that policies protect and support the people they’re supposed to? We constantly see that those who are most vulnerable and marginalised aren’t being heard; they’re not at the table when the decisions are made.”

If Aaron sounds pessimistic, he isn’t. Not really. 

“None of this stuff needs to be the way it is,” he says. “Housing crisis or not, we don’t have to have people living on the streets; we don’t have to have people being marketed a dangerous drug every day. There are creative, innovative solutions in the community that could be supported to end homelessness and alcohol harm. Those things can change.”

If you would like to help advocate for changes to our alcohol laws, please tell your local decision makers, including MPs, councillors and local boards. Let them know how alcohol is affecting your community and what they can do to change it.

For more information about how you can get involved, please contact Community Action on Youth and Drugs at cayad@aklc.govt.nz or on Facebook @cayadauckland.

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