Embracing the “us” in “nothing about us, without us”: Implementing peer support with housing first services in Fredericton

Written by Tara-Lynn Pelletier and Jennifer MacNeill on June 21, 2019

In a recent CBC story, New Brunswick Minister of Social Development Dorothy Shephard announced that the province would like to set aside 35 rent subsidies for individuals ready to transition to permanent housing and an additional $140,000 for “wrap-around” support services to ensure those people remain successfully housed in Fredericton. What is not yet clear is what the support services will be and how effective they will be at dealing with the increased rates of homelessness in the city of Fredericton.

The current homelessness crisis in the New Brunswick, and more specifically in Fredericton, has been a high priority issue for some time now,with several reports published in recent years. “The Road Home” (Community Action Group on Homelessness 2015), and “Paving The Road Home” (Mayor’s Task Force on Homelessness 2017) both make specific recommendations on ways to solve the growing problem in our city. A common theme in these documents is that action must be taken to address the issue of homelessness, but what is missing are the voices of the individuals who are facing this reality.

The quote, “nothing about us, without us,” has been appearing in several forums on the topic of homelessness and vulnerably housed individuals, but has this really been embraced? We would argue not, when the voices of those who are experiencing these issues first hand are not included. Why are we creating ideas and planning systems without including people who have lived or are living the reality of homelessness?

There has yet to be a direct call for prioritizing peer support when it comes to the issue of homelessness and support services. As we work together to determine where $140,000 should be spent, we argue that prioritizing Peer Specialists working within a Housing First model would have significant impact at addressing the many gaps that still exist in our homelessness system.

There is a great amount of literature on the effectiveness of peer support for those who are marginalized, vulnerable, or who have experienced hardships that some professionals may not be able to relate, often because of power differentials or having no first-hand experience of the issues. The system can be difficult and intimidating to navigate for those who have experienced some form of oppression. Having someone along the ride with you, who has experienced similar traumas and difficulties, who is now on a path of recovery, can make a huge difference in an individual’s likelihood of
long-term success.

Peer support is a naturally occurring, mutually beneficial support process, where people who share a common experience meet as equals, sharing skills, strengths and hope, allowing people to learn ways of coping from each other. Formalized peer support begins when persons with lived experience, who have received specialized training, assume unique designated roles to support an individual’s expressed wishes.

By implementing peer support with a Housing First lens in mind, the peer specialist’s goal is to maintain a supportive partnership with the individual to ensure they are successful in obtaining housing, maintaining housing, and receiving resources or services essential to establishing healthy, permanent residency.

In the “2017 Progress Report on Homelessness“, a section titled, “Finding the Forgotten,” an author with lived experience states: “this is the beauty of peer support. We can connect with our people at a deeper level, using the healing power of empathy. We can find the broken and defeated that no one else can find because we are one of them, and they trust us enough to invite us in”, adding, “these are the reasons why I believe that effective housing first systems should value paid Peer Support Workers as part of their teams. It’s because they understand nothing can be built for us without including us every step of the way.”

It is time that we take a proactive approach to ending episodic homelessness by introducing a method that is proven to work at bridging the gap for vulnerable individuals receiving services and achieving long-term success. You cannot truly empathize with someone’s experience unless you have walked a similar path, and this is why peer support is a crucial step in the right direction. We cannot continue excluding people who have first-hand knowledge of the issues policy makers are attempting to solve. Instead we must embrace the concept of “nothing about us, without us” in its truest form and include these individuals every step of the way. We believe this process begins with implementing peer support as a priority along with Housing First strategies.

Tara-Lynn Pelletier and Jennifer MacNeill are social work students at St. Thomas University. They did their social action placement with the Fredericton Downtown Community Health Centre.

Comments are closed.