The Value of Peer Support

“When you see them (participants) accomplish something, even something small, it’s like a world of opportunities opens up for them,” says Ash, ShelterCare Peer Support Specialist, “I get to be the first person to witness that.” As a Peer Support Specialist, Ash spends much of his time working one-on-one with young adults on life skills and achieving their goals, “I have a passion for working with at-risk youth and young adults. As a young adult, I had to overcome a lot of really big barriers to get where I’m at today and I feel like I really relate to a lot of these participants.”

Peer Support Specialists are, “People with lived experience from either addiction, mental health, or both, who have made it through their recovery and are now in a position to walk other people through their recovery,” explains Crys, Traditional Health Worker Supervisor at ShelterCare. After five years at ShelterCare, Crys’ role is now to oversee the agency’s Peers.

Melissa is a Peer at ShelterCare, she explains the value of peer support, “we can walk side by side with somebody, shoulder to shoulder. We’re not there to do for them. We’re not there to tell them what to do, but we’re there to work with them and they can look at us and see that there’s hope.”

Many of ShelterCare’s program participants have experienced years of homelessness and the trauma that comes with it, “A lot of these people have hit rock bottom and I think there’s something really beautiful about hitting rock bottom, and then having that be the solid foundation on which your life is built upon,” explains Ash. Peers are there to support individuals through that rebuilding process.

Trauma around homelessness can make it difficult to accomplish day-to-day tasks, so Peers are there to, “be that one, steady person,” according to Crys, who can help our program participants rebuild their confidence and life skills. A 2022 study by the University of Ottawa reported that 91% of unhoused individuals have experienced at least one traumatic event, and 99% experienced childhood trauma, so the support our program participants receive from Peers is an important part of their journey to stability.

“I had this one participant that was really nervous about navigating the bus system again,” explains Melissa, “so I rode the bus with them a couple of times and I got a phone call one random Friday afternoon, and they were just so excited and elated. And they’re like, “I rode the bus by myself. I went and got iced coffee and I went to a doctor’s appointment!” And it just feels so good to be a part of that.”

These small wins are part of a bigger strategy, “We work with them collaboratively to identify and set goals to achieve their own independence,” Ash says. This allows the program participant to be in charge of their own journey in a supportive environment. “There was this gentleman who was convinced his life was never going to get better and that he would never get a new pair of glasses again. We worked together and found him a therapist and his outlook on life has greatly improved. We even got him a voucher and he got a new pair of glasses,” Ash explained, “Watching him say, “Oh my gosh, I can actually read a book again! I can read the street signs!” is one of my biggest successes.”

Social services work can cause burnout, so our staff support each other and celebrate wins to stay motivated. Crys explains the joy in seeing her peers succeed, “now I supervise people who are providing peer support for people, who I used to provide peer support for and I get to see how they’ve succeeded. I can be a part of their journey still.”

Crys has the ability to be a support system for our Peers in her role. She explains that one thing she works with Peers on is practicing Intentional Peer Support, “In Intentional Peer Support, before you would self-disclose information to someone about your recovery, we have to ask “What is our intent?” It’s usually because we know that’s a step, and once we lay that step, then the person we’re supporting will come along with us.”

Crys says, “We have a lifetime of lived experience, which is no more or less valuable than a formal education,” especially when supporting someone experiencing trauma.

Lived experience creates a high level of empathy, which is so important when supporting our program participants. Melissa expressed her compassion for the individuals she serves, “It doesn’t matter your age, race, or your mental health disability, we will be there to help anyone in need. I feel like we need to all treat each other with kindness and respect, and we should all have the same rights. We should all be able to get the same mental health help.”

ShelterCare believes that all individuals deserve a chance to achieve their greatest level of independence and resilience. “No one is beyond help,” says Ash, “even if someone seems like they’re too far gone, there is still a person in there who just wants to be loved.”

In 2023, ShelterCare’s Peer Support Specialists have provided support to over 130 people on their journey to become and remain stably housed. Your donation supports the work Melissa, Ash, and Crys do to help ShelterCare’s program participants gain and maintain their independence and stability. Will you support ShelterCare by making a donation today?

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