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Empowering Change: Recognising Peer Support Workers as Experts in our Sector


This is a transcript of a panel from the Victorian Homelessness Conference 2023. It was originally published in the February 2024 edition of Parity magazine. Learn more about Parity including how to access full editions.

Tom Johnson, Director Policy and Communications, Deputy CEO, Council to Homeless Persons

Panel Members:
Jeremey Gunning, Peer Support Worker, Uniting Vic.Tas.
Stacey Park, Team Leader, Assertive Outreach, Uniting Vic.Tas.
Nigel Pernu, Peer Education Support Program Graduate, Council to Homeless Persons

Tom Johnson: Hello. I’m Tom Johnson, the Deputy CEO at the Council of Homeless Persons. Cassandra Bawden, the fearless Team Leader of our Peer Education Support Program (PESP) team, is unwell and so can’t join us today. Luckily, I have been to all of the planning sessions of this illustrious panel and so am stepping in at the last minute to facilitate this very important conversation around lived experience and Peer Support Workers within the homelessness sector.

I’d like to begin by acknowledging the Wurundjeri people on whose land we are meeting today, and pay my respects to Elders, past, present, and emerging, and acknowledge that their land was never ceded. I would also like to acknowledge our panel members, Jeremey Gunning, Stacey Park, and Nigel Pernu. Thank you for joining us today.

For those that don’t know, CHP recently embarked on a regional roadshow with forums across Victoria. We have been to Ballarat, Bendigo, Sale, Morwell and Benalla. And we have heard what’s happening in regional Victoria. What’s interesting is that, across all of regional Victoria, what was very loud and clear is that we need more public and social housing. This was the number one issue that came up at all these forums. What also came through was a real need for lived experience and Peer Support Workers to feature as part of our specialist homelessness services workforce, and the important role they play in the outcomes for the people with whom we work. So that is why I am very happy to introduce this session.

I’ll now hand it over to Jeremey.

Jeremey Gunning: Hello everybody. I’m Jeremey Gunning. I’m a Street 2 Home Ballarat Peer Support Worker. I spent about 18 months living rough out in the bush and joined up with the lovely crew that helped me through my homeless journey. I’m now the Peer Support Worker and trying to pass on the love and the goodness I received and trying to give back a little bit.

Stacey Park: I’m Stacey Park. I’m the Team Leader for Street 2 Home in Ballarat. We have an Assertive Outreach team and a Supportive Housing team. And as part of our Supportive Housing team, I was very excited to implement peer support work as part of that multidisciplinary team to acknowledge that we need to infuse lived experience and peer support in our multidisciplinary teams to encourage and support successful housing.

Nigel Pernu: Hi there, my name is Nigel Pernu. I’ve been a PESP Graduate for the last six years and I’m also now a Peer Support Worker for cohealth.

Tom: So, I might throw to you first Nigel, and ask, why did you become a Peer Support Worker and what has inspired you?

Nigel: One of the reasons I became a Peer Support Worker is because I’ve had some good Peer Support Workers throughout my life and throughout my journey out of homelessness. Some of them have really been great and have really inspired me to want to go into the field. Also, in working for CHP over the last six years, I’ve had some great training and some great leaders and teachers who inspired me and made me want to go out and be a Peer Support Worker myself.

Tom: What about you, Jeremey?

Jeremey: I actually never thought that I’d find myself working in the community services. I actually didn’t think I’d ever work again. Part of my homelessness journey was that I got increasingly sick and couldn’t do the jobs that I used to do. Through the relationship that I formed with my Outreach worker, who by the way are also worth their weight in gold, he and I became friends over three years. He encouraged me to become a peer worker. That’s part of what we do at Street 2 Home. We seek to build people, walk alongside them, and build them up. And I felt that I had something to offer. This is the ethos of Street 2 Home. They wanted lived experience within their team, and I thought I’d give it a go. I applied and jumped in and here I am, loving it.

Tom: Nigel, what does peer support work look like in your role at cohealth?

Nigel: Well, I’m part of the multidisciplinary team that Stacey mentioned. We have a holistic approach to working with people. My team is the Homelessness Health Support Service, and so we have got lots of different medical professionals and allied health people on board. We also do two different programs that encourage better mental health and connection in community. So, it is quite a varied role. I facilitate a couple of programs myself. One of them is called ‘Need to Know’. CHP also has Parity magazine that’s published regularly, to which people who are homeless or have experience of homelessness or at risk of homelessness can contribute, and it takes issues that are important to them and puts them in a publication.

We also have a group called ‘cohealth Kangaroos’, which is a great initiative that was started by one of the managers at cohealth, which is a football team running in conjunction with Reclink. So that also provides connection, community, sport, of course, friendship and teamwork. We also run a program called ‘Cook to Connect’. I’m working with a dietician there. We do cooking classes with the Kathleen Syme Library, which is a really interesting library, which has facilities unlike any library that I’ve ever really seen. Things like a commercial kitchen and a 3D printer. Lots of other great things occur there, and we run a cooking class there for about 30 people. And we cook different types of the cuisines of different nationalities every couple of weeks. And so that’s another great connection and community outreach engagement. So, it’s pretty varied.

Tom: So, I’d like to open this up to the entire panel. How would you describe peer support work……. Stacey?

Stacey: I would describe it as somebody utilising their lived experience to inspire people in their journey to recovery, whatever that looks like, whatever their journey looks like. I believe peer support work inspires hope and drive, and especially in our program, because Jeremey worked with our program and now, he’s employed by our program, so he inspires a lot of our consumers. They feel hopeful in their journey out of homelessness and feel that their next step could be peer support work. Peer support work utilises lived experience, creating a safe environment, sharing and inspiring hope.

Jeremey: That’s a big one with me. I have a lot of imposter syndrome going on all the time, and I’ve suffered from a real lack of confidence. But things I do notice just how our consumers look at me, and just think ‘I could be a Peer Support Worker’. They might have the worst AOD issue you can think of. So, for them to even think of that as a possibility, and to think that they might even try and get clean, or whatever, I think is pretty awesome. I love that part of my job. I see it all the time.

Nigel: Yeah, I agree with Jeremey. Recently I was working with someone, and they said they were inspired to become an AOD worker, and we had a conversation about that. And so, I can see the benefits of our role and work, and I actually had experienced the benefits of a peer worker myself. So, I think it’s really great when it works, if people are using, for example, from the teachings we have learned at CHP, where we use an IPS (Intentional Peer Support) framework, which was provided by SHARC, the Self-Help Addiction Resource Centre. So, intentional peer support means working with intention, that is, with purpose, and listening to people where they are, and understanding and forming relationships which are really important. And I think that that we are doing that pretty well at cohealth.

Tom: So, Peer Support Workers are not universal across the specialist homelessness sector? Why is peer support important for our sector?

Stacey: I think Peer Support Workers understand more deeply how our programs work and how they don’t work. They are able to identify gaps. They are able to improve and elevate service delivery and ultimately our consumers’ experience. For example, if I was to go out to a rough sleeping camp in the middle of nowhere, and somebody was sitting beside a fire and I walked up to them and I said, ‘Hey, how you going?’ and tried to build rapport and sit down and understand a little bit about their scenario, I might be able to build a base level of rapport. Whereas with a Peer Support Worker, Jeremey can go out to a campsite and he can sit down beside somebody and he can say, ‘Hey, how are you going? I built a fire when I slept here.’ And all of a sudden, that person has so much trust in everything that he’s saying, because he truly gets it. He understands what that person is feeling, what they’re experiencing, and that trust is almost instant. And that’s something that is amazing. As are my assertive outreach team. Sometimes, we need peer support work. Probably all the time. We need Peer Support Workers to come in and really help us break down those barriers and build trust for people that have been let down by the system for decades.

So, I guess for me, the reason why Peer Support Workers are really important in our sector is that it’s also about the advocacy. I can go into schools and teach children, show them photos, and explain about homelessness and rough sleeping. But I can tell you the first time I went into a school with Jeremey, those kids hung off every word that he said. Every picture that he showed. They couldn’t have cared less if we were there, we have been doing it wrong this whole time. Jeremey should have been there every single time, and he will be from this point onwards. That lived experience, that’s the real experience. That’s what people want to hear, and I guess that’s why it’s important.

Nigel: I think Jeremey said a very interesting thing when we were having a chat about this a couple of days ago. It was like, we speak the language. So that’s something that stuck with me or resonates with me. We get people on their level.

Jeremey: The fact that we have been homeless, and because it’s all consuming and mind boggling sometimes when you are on your own and you are homeless. But there are always those other things that come with it. It’s the mental health issues, it’s the AOD issues; it’s everything. And the thing is, my life has led me to this role that I’m in right now. It’s been a very interesting life. I wouldn’t take any of it back. I’ve had a lot of fun. I’ve shed a lot of tears. I’ve been homeless. But my experience has led me to a really good place. I speak their language and people just get it. I never expected it myself. It’s a foot on the door with people straight away. I love that. The group heart, which we’ll talk about later. There is a lot of trauma. There’s so much sadness. The people we deal with are on the high end of the scale. The most complex issues you can think of, that’s what we deal with. And the people we work with are so lovely. But their journey’s different to mine and they accept that. I accept it, and I’m one of them. I’m a peer.

Nigel: And I think that one of the things about peer work, where you use your lived experience, it feels so valuable in the end. Like, you might have gone through all this trauma and hardship but turning that into something positive is in itself a great thing or can be a great thing.

Jeremey: It’s been good for my growth, my personal growth. We are all on a journey. I’m an old man now, but I’m still learning. Learning is what it’s all about. I’m learning, I’m coming out of my journey and I’m helping others come through theirs.

Tom: Building on that, what does it mean to a consumer or service user that you are working with, that you come with that lived experience and with that intentional peer support framework to equip you in that role? What’s the impact of the consumer when you’re working with them, Nigel?

Nigel: I think it’s all about trust and building relationships.

This is similar to that point we were making before, speaking the language. Just having that similarity, if not totally the same experience, but having similar experiences, creates a relationship that you can build upon. And yeah, I think that’s really important with IPS, building relationships. That’s what it’s all about.

Tom: Do you have any reflections on that, Jeremey?

Jeremey: Just one, because there’s one client in particular that will stay with me forever. He and I were so different. But the fact that I’d been homeless and I was walking alongside him opened him up so much, and he spoke to me in a way that I don’t think he’s ever spoken to another man. And I just think that’s amazing. And it was because I’d been homeless. That was more qualification for him. I really put a foot in the door.

Stacey: This is also something that we often reflect on in Street 2 Home. Is it because we can sort of break down that shame that people seem to feel? It’s quite evident that they don’t feel that when they’re engaging with you. Our consumers are comfortable asking you, and saying, ‘Hey, can you help us out?’ or, ‘How do I do this?’.

Jeremey: Yeah, because that in itself is part of homelessness because there is shame. There is guilt, it’s everything. But I don’t hold any of that anymore, it’s all gone, it’s in the past. And that’s what I am trying to help the people I work with. And there’s no point dwelling on it (becoming homeless). It’s happened.

Nigel: You can be a bit ashamed when you move into a new transitional property and not understand all the things that go with having a home. That’s something that I’ve experienced in the past as well.

Jeremey: It’s funny because my journey is so different. Everyone’s homeless journey is absolutely freaking different. One size does not fit all. We have got people who’ve never had a home. They’re 30 years old and never actually had their own home. Now that’s mind boggling. But I listen to all of that and it doesn’t seem to matter because they are our journeys. But the thing is, we have all been homeless together. And that’s all I get from my heart.

Tom: So, Stacey, what makes these roles successful, that is, the collaborative team of the Street 2 Home? What makes it so successful?

Stacey: I think it’s about education. I think it’s making sure that everybody in your team is fully aware of what peer support work is. And that they not only respect peer support but embrace it and advocate for it. I think it’s about ensuring that there’s adequate training available, and that there’s funding for the training. And I think that it’s really important for the team and for managers to be really supportive, understanding and flexible.

And I guess, flexibility works both ways. Jeremey touched on it before, that sometimes he feels a bit unwell. So, we are flexible with our days, but that works the other way too. I might say we have got an event and Jeremey will say: ‘I’ll work Monday, and I’ll have Friday off’. So, having a really flexible workplace and just lots of really open communication, lots of informal and formal catchups just to see how everybody’s traveling both ways.

Jeremey will often come into my office and go, ‘How’s everything working for you? Is this working? What do you think?’ The other thing is you’ve got to be really, really open to feedback. So, when you are recruiting Peer Support Workers and you value lived experience, you’ve really got to be very open to hearing very raw and real and honest feedback about your service and your program. And then accepting it and making changes where you can. Sometimes that can be confronting, and I imagine some people may find that they feel a little bit defensive. You’ve just got to be open to accepting all of the feedback that comes.

Tom: What about you, Nigel? What’s the essence of the partnership?

Nigel: One of the good things about the team I’m working with is that they are very kind people. There’s a lot of empathy there. I think that’s really important. Having an understanding of the informed kindness where you don’t necessarily tolerate or put up with bad behaviour, but you understand why that behaviour is occurring. I think the talk at the conference on person-centred practice focused on this a little bit. Or that this was one of the key points that they brought to their conversation. It’s about understanding trauma and understanding why people act out, or so-called act out in certain ways. Just understanding that gives you a certain level of empathy. So, working with people I’m working with at the moment, I’d say that they’re all really good at that too.

Jeremey: That is really important. In preparation for this conference session, we had a couple of meetings and Nigel made me aware of the problems that some Peer Support Workers have in the workplace. But from the moment I started with these awesome people, there was nothing like that. There was buy-in from everybody who valued lived experience. I’ve got Stacey’s support. I think I could do anything…. almost.

But also. we have got another manager here, and they just have been so supportive of me from day one. And I really appreciate that. I couldn’t understand the problems that have been out there for other Peer Support Workers. So, what you need to do, if you’re going to go in with the peer support, is go all in. If it doesn’t work, change it, talk, speak. The open relationship we have is huge because I do have disability and things change. I could not have a more obliging boss. It just works. You need to communicate.

Tom: What might a day in your role look like Nigel? I think you talked about the cooking class and other things. What does a day look like for you as a Peer Support Worker?

Nigel: Well, it varies from day to day, but quite a lot of it is making people feel at home when they come to our service and welcoming them to the building. Booking appointments for them with the allied health professionals that we have on site, or counsellors, or the AOD team. It also involves, like we talked about briefly, doing different programs with people. Programs that will keep them connected and interested, and even entertained to a degree because I think that’s what we do really well at cohealth. We like tapping into what people really enjoy in life, whether it be cooking, sport, creativity or writing. Yeah, lots of different things.

Tom: Stacey, you’ve got an Assertive Outreach Team. You’ve got a multidisciplinary team that works around that. Is a Peer Support Worker funded as a fundamental part of that team?

Stacey: The short answer to that is no. We wish it was. Jeremey is 0.4, and we wish that we could have him a lot more, and we did actually have to move our full-time hours around. So, taking away from others instead of being able to add to that, which was absolutely worth it. Don’t get me wrong, I would do it a hundred times over, but we shouldn’t have to sacrifice to implement peer support. I think it’s about getting that commitment and that buy-in and getting funding to embed peer support in all programs.

Nigel: I cannot say that cohealth’s always been like a leader in peer support. I was speaking to one of the managers there and he said that six years ago they didn’t have Peer Support Workers in the capacity in which they have them now. And if they did have Peer Support Workers, they were getting paid in vouchers. But that has changed radically since I’ve been there or even before I was there. And I believe that one of the really good things is that Peer Support Workers are being paid as professionals now within this organisation. And I believe that makes people feel valued and that their work is of value. So that’s one of the things that I’d say needs to happen.

Tom: What does that mean for you, Jeremey, to work in an organisation where you are valued and that your role as a Peer Support Worker is embraced?

Jeremey: It’s pretty cool actually. I’m at the end of my working life and I have to admit I’ve fallen into a job that, one, I love doing, but two, I’ve really got the best management I’ve ever had because they really trust me. There is absolute buy-in from my team leader. And it is really comforting, I have to admit.

Tom: Stacey, do you feel supported in leading a team that has peer support at the heart of your team, from your organisation?

Stacey: Absolutely. I think there’s a lot of trust. I feel a lot of trust from my management. I don’t think that I would have been able to explore peer support the way we have been able to explore that and our consumer partnership group if I didn’t have the trust that I have. It was more of, ‘Oh yes, that sounds really good and yes, we do need to infuse this, go for it.’ And I think that having that trust and respect from your managers is really, really important. Obviously, they’ve been able to support me to make it happen funding-wise bit by bit. But again, we really need to be looking for funding outside of philanthropy and making Jeremey feel valued by having more than a 12-month 0.4 contract.

Nigel: And having other peer workers so that you can talk to them as well, I think that’s important.

Stacey: Oh, wouldn’t that be great? Yes. Trying to create a network for Jeremey to speak to other Peer Support Workers in homelessness in Central Highlands is impossible. That’s sad because other services and their consumers are missing out by not having that resource.

Nigel: Yeah, trust seems to be a big factor. And maybe it’s because I’ve experienced homelessness and coming from that trauma background, you find trusting people quite hard. But having the trust of the people I’m working with has been really important to me.

Tom: That’s fantastic. So, let’s have a tricky conversation.

We are talking about trust and genuineness here. How would you describe genuine investment or buy-in in peer support roles versus tokenism? And I think you spoke of that, where an employed Peer Support Worker was being paid through vouchers.

Nigel: Yep. It feels quite tokenistic when you’re not trusted by the management or the culture is, like, ‘us’ versus ‘them’. For example, case managers versus peer workers, like peer workers are going to steal the case managers’ jobs! They are entirely different jobs. So why would you be distrusting of a peer worker if they were coming into your sphere or surroundings. But yeah, that’s maybe that a reason for a little bit of my bitterness.

Stacey: I think again, it’s around education. Within our organisation and my program, my team specifically, my Assertive Outreach team and my Supportive Housing team, they are not only informed about peer support work, but they believe in it so much that they’re also fierce advocates for it. And what that means is that, when there is tokenism, they challenge it. They advocate for peer support, and they challenge tokenism. And I’m really proud of that. I’m proud that in my team that tokenism does not happen. And I’m sure Jeremey would be very open with me if there was any, because he is blunt as a sledgehammer. But I’m really very proud of the fact that my team would absolutely challenge tokenism.

Jeremey: I had the conversation. I talked about tokenism with a colleague not that long ago. I never felt that was in play here. And you could tell that it wasn’t, in the fact we do all sorts of things. And I love the fact that, one day, I could be at a high school, next thing I could be out in outreach. Certainly, I’ve never got the feeling of tokenism within the team I work with…there is absolute buy-in, I think, from our team, whether it’s a Uniting thing or our thing. But yeah, there’s absolute buy-in from everyone.

Stacey: And it goes beyond our team, as well. I know that other parts of the organisation have come to you and asked for your support and assistance when they’ve needed it. So, I think that people really value your experience and your skillset and reach out to you quite frequently for that.

Jeremey: The whole lived experience consumer partnership is really huge with us. It is really important. And I think, people are starting to realise just how important. The HARC, the Homeless Advocacy Reference Committee, that has won an award at Uniting for the best consumer partnership group. We are speaking with government. We are speaking with banks. We’re speaking with all sorts. We are all about lived experience. Some of us still have extreme AOD issues, extreme health issues, but we are raw and it’s awesome. It’s just absolutely awesome.

Tom: So how did the program start, the HARC?

Stacey: So HARC came about when, unfortunately, we lost a consumer. She passed away in her home. When we get people homes, we’re really excited and we’re like, ‘Yay! We have got this person a home.’ And then tragedy struck, and we lost this person, and she was really important to our program. And it got our team thinking about how we can implement changes to combat that next stage. Like we have got all of the experience in our multidisciplinary team, but what are we missing? What could we be missing out on? And we came to the conclusion that it was our consumer’s voice. Like, yes, we’re doing feedback programs, we’re sending text messages and letters, and actively seeking feedback, but it’s not the same. It’s about truly being informed by people with lived experience. So out of that came HARC. And that was about the same time Jeremey started. And who better to facilitate and coordinate HARC than a Peer Support Worker?

Jeremey: I don’t doubt that anybody could have done that, but I do think that being a peer worker will really work with that. It’s a whole lot of my life right now, to be honest with you, because it is embracing that lived experience. And we are shaping, like I said, where the Council come and sit with us for an hour and a half, to talk about their plan for the homeless in Ballarat for the next 10 years. Apparently, they don’t have one already. So anyway, we dealt with that. But it’s just lived experience.

Tom: So how does it feel for those members of HARC with that lived experience or living experience, as you alluded to, to feel valued and for the community to seek out their guidance, wisdom, and lived experience?

Jeremey: That again is the other awesome part of my job that to watch the growth and we have got nine members at the moment. And to watch the growth of every single one of them for the last 18 months is insane. And it’s not changing, it’s just that little bit of purpose. And having real freaking discussions. We are having some big nobs come into our office, come into the boardroom, and ask questions. My goodness!

Tom: It’s powerful.

Jeremey: Oh, it’s really, really powerful. And it’s powerful for every single one of the members of HARC. They don’t know they’ve won this award yet. It’s just coming at the next meeting.

Tom: So, Stacey, when you envisioned it, did it have the word advocacy in it? What does that mean in terms of the group? What does advocacy mean, and what does that impact in the work as Jeremy was saying?

Stacey: HARC has done a bit of advocacy, well a fair bit of advocacy. They were a big part of (last year’s) Homelessness Week, they were up there educating the community and challenging stigma and sharing their stories and their artwork. They also initiated the Locker Project. So now we have got the indoor and outdoor locker projects that they’ve got up and running.

One of the coolest things that they did though was get together and identify in Central Highlands all of the vacant properties that were sitting around doing nothing that were managed by the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing. And they wrote a letter, and they asked me to send it…and it was very amazing how quickly that letter led to a whole heap of housing offers and how quickly all of those properties were filled.

So even just on this smaller scale, something that took them 15 minutes, maybe, to put together can have such a huge outcome. And most recently, I got to sit in on a meeting with the Ballarat City Council about their toilet strategy and just to hear some of their experiences and really advocating for the Council to keep the toilets open for people who are rough sleeping, to be able to have some dignity. And they advocated fiercely. And we’re really looking forward to seeing toilets of all things that should be open for people to access all of the time.

Jeremey: You, Melbournites won’t get that. You’ve got toilets 24 hours here. But they close at nine o’clock in Ballarat. There was not a toilet after nine o’clock.

Tom: So, the important thing is that we are talking about Peer Support Workers here today. What is your role as the Peer Support Worker working with the HARC? What does that look like and why is that important to have a Peer Support Worker leading the HARC?

Jeremey: Just focusing solely on the meetings we have, the feeling is that we are like a little family. And I mean that might come from other workers, but I don’t know that it would. 

I take my lanyard off when I go into the meetings. As hard as people try and as good a work as it is, and as lovely as all of you would be, there will always be a power imbalance. And I don’t think there is when I’m in that room with them, and they say what they want to say, they say how they want to say it. We have got rules, and I break a lot more of them than they do. But yeah, I think having a Peer Support Worker has aided that process hugely.

Tom: So, if Cassandra was here, she would talk about the Peer Education Support Program here at Council of Homeless Persons. Nigel, you’re a graduate of that program. Can you talk a bit more about that program and what it means?

Nigel: Yeah, it’s a great program. It takes people with lived experience of homelessness and gives them a chance to advocate for themselves and for other people on issues of homelessness. And also, to talk to government about government policies, and the way they treat homeless people, and talk about the stigma of homelessness and provide education through our Connect/Respect programs and through understanding homelessness training.

CHP was really instrumental in me becoming a peer worker. They supported me throughout my whole tenure with education and training. They have always been really interested in what I’ve had to say. I’ve never felt undervalued or dismissed by anyone that’s worked there. And I think that goes for all of the other PESP graduates or PESP team members. I’d say that they feel very welcomed by CHP. And yeah, I just think it’s a great culture at CHP that is led from the top.

Tom: So, what’s the importance of when you were a member of the PESP and, as part of the program, having a Peer Support Worker that was leading that training and that work?

Nigel: Well, Cass, our team leader, has been really instrumental in helping set up what it means to be a peer worker. She’s worked in conjunction with SHARC, like I said, setting up this IPS framework. And yeah, I think that the fact that she’s experienced homelessness and she understands the difficulties and the trauma that people go through really relates to her kindness and her ability to see through the issues of what people are dealing with. So, yeah, I’d say that makes it a great deal to everyone that’s worked for PESP or worked with PESP.

Tom: So, talking to your role at cohealth, and you talked about case managers and the interaction between your role as a Peer Support Worker. The term, I think I’ve heard Cass and you guys talking about was ‘peer slip’? Can you talk a bit more about that and how you manage that avoid that?

Nigel: That’s such a thing at cohealth. They’re very well-informed about peer work and managers have been quite clear in saying, ‘You’re doing peer work, we’re not letting you slip into case management’, which happens quite often with other organisations, or can happen, where the peer workers eventually end up doing all the case managers’ work, well not all the case managers’ work, but doing some case managing, and their peer work gets ignored, for lack of a better word. But, yeah, I think that is not the feeling I get working for cohealth. But, yeah, I’ve heard that term.

Tom: Stacey, do you have anything to reflect on that and how you manage that within your team?

Stacey: Jeremey and I catch up a fair bit about where he’s at and what he’s up to. We all catch up informally. But, again, it’s about education. So, if other staff members are aware of what peer support is and their role, then they’re not going to put pressure on peer support to fill gaps or ease pressure or workloads and things like that. So, it’s about understanding what peer support work is and valuing it and making sure of that.

The other thing is that, unfortunately, we are not remunerating Peer Support Workers the way we should. So, understanding that it’s also really unfair to be pushing mental health worker or social worker roles onto a peer worker when those roles are paid at a higher level. So, acknowledging that, and making sure that slip doesn’t happen.

Tom: Reflecting back on the PESP and your HARC, are they important pathways to a future as a Peer Support Worker for people?

Jeremey: Yeah, absolutely. I’d even go as far as to say three quarters, probably two or three already on HARC now, they could in the future.

Nigel: Yeah, there’s already been a couple of peer workers that have come out of the PESP team, but I’d say that they’re being very instrumental in me becoming a peer worker. Part of the major reason that I had become a peer worker is because of all the support I’ve received from PESP and CHP.

Jeremey: I do find it a hard enough journey for the members to ask me questions along these lines…… but I’m happy to chat with anybody. So, we do, we talk about peer work and what they might need to do to get here themselves.

Tom: I’m mindful that I’ve been asking all the questions. Are there any questions that anyone wants to ask from the floor

Audience member: Hi! Today was an amazing discussion. It was really interesting to hear all your perspectives. So, thank you for that. You touched on some really important subjects, particularly as peer supporters, lived experience people, people with lived experience and living experience. You touched on that there’s ongoing trauma, (that) just because you get employment as a peer worker, it doesn’t mean that your homelessness trauma goes away or that it can’t resurface. And you touched on the fact that it’s a really valuable role. And we come across really hard situations sometimes, like you said, you’ve lost someone in your program. These are the realities that we face as a sector. And I think, as a Peer Support Worker once upon a time myself, I can add value to this conversation.

My question is, and this is something that I thought of a bit when I was a Peer Support Worker, I was hired with a bunch of other social workers. Everyone now is in managerial positions or, like, team leaders, they’ve moved up, but Peer Support Workers don’t really have any career progression currently in the sector. So, I know it’s new in homelessness, but Peer Support Workers have been going forever in mental health and AOD. And I’m sure there are pathways to further employment in those sectors.

I was wondering, what your take is on career progression for peer workers in homelessness? What could that look like in the future?

Stacey: I think about this quite a lot. It’s such a good question. The reason I think about this is because Jeremey, as he said before, says: ‘This is my last job.’ And I often challenge him, (that) I actually don’t think it is, because I feel like he could add so much value to lots of different spaces beyond his ability to keep working in my program.

His career progression… I can’t speak to that, it’s his goals but I could see him advocating, managing programs and providing guidance or leading a peer support workforce even or on past that. If he wanted to get into case management, he’s absolutely got the skillset there. So, I think, in homelessness, we need to acknowledge that it’s not just one skillset. We’re not looking at an AOD Peer Support Worker, we’re not looking at a mental health Peer Support Worker. We’re looking at a Peer Support Worker who embodies everything, we’re talking mental health, physical health, AOD and complexities that we just don’t really see in other areas. So, this skillset is tremendous. So, I can’t see why there wouldn’t be career progression if people are in the right space with the right support.

Jeremey: I’ll be honest. I don’t doubt that, whatever comes along, I don’t feel like the fact that I’m Peer Support Worker would hinder my opportunities to progress. I have no ambitions. I’m more than happy to do what I’m doing right now….’Do you feel like it?

Nigel: No, I don’t feel there’s any hindrance to forward progression being a peer worker. But even saying forward progression, like, why can’t we make peer work the ultimate job? And that’s why I suppose what we’re talking about here, what we want to actually speak to government about, (is) paying peer workers a respectable wage so you don’t actually have to go and look for different types of jobs.

But yeah, I understand what you mean. And I actually have been speaking to my manager at cohealth and he actually told me the other day that there is career progression available. So, that’s at least a good thing.

Tom: Any other questions?

Audience member: Thanks, Tom and the panel. A wonderful presentation. Tom, this one’s probably more to you as a representative for the peak body, CHP. There is clearly some wonderful work being done by our Peer Support Workers right across the homelessness programs, or for those who are lucky enough to have some peer support within homelessness programs and with the HARC as well and the great work being done there.

What are the next steps for us? How do we get peer support and programs like HARC funded across our homelessness programs? How do we work together? What’s your advice on that?

Tom: Well, I think, today’s session has started the conversation. It’s about building awareness that peer support work within our homelessness sector is important and makes an incredible difference to the people that we work with. Lived experience is the heart of that change. I think there’s a broader advocacy piece, if we look at the concurrent panel that ran on this main stage before, Pride in Place (housing and homelessness support for the LGBTQIA+ community) was well represented as part of that. And we saw when those tenders went out and when those programs were successful, that Peer Support Workers were built into the proposals that were put forward. And I think that those Supports were wrapped around with those Peer Support Workers and they have become valued members of their team, and are not an add on or something where money needs to be moved around to make it happen.

In the CHP Budget submission to the Victorian Government, we will be putting that there should be appropriate funding for Peer Support Worker roles and lived experience roles. And I think that the panel today provides the evidence of those outcomes that this brings. And I think, for us as a sector, there’s a broader role for community-based advocacy with that lived experience for us as organisations to enable and to support.

Since I started at CHP, the PESP team and the PESP graduates have provided invaluable support to our advocacy and our service delivery and the other work that we do. And it is also really exciting that our newest PESP members are here in the room today. And hat’s off to you guys for volunteering and putting your hands up to do that and we’re really excited. So, I think there is a strong appetite. I’m also open to ideas from others if anyone wants to make a statement on how do we do this and how do we create this change. Because I think the evidence is clear that the outcomes are better.

Stacey: I would like to add that, when we’re looking into lived experience, it’s really important to be brave.

I often see when we’re looking into peer support work and infusing that in our programs that we’re not exploring all the depths of peer support and lived experience that we could. I think it’s about recruiting people with lots of lived experience and being brave in entering that space completely. And I think that it’s paid off for us tenfold having Jeremey in our team, having somebody who’s been in our program and seen our program intimately. Our service is just completely elevated by his experience and his voice, and our consumers have benefited beyond what you can believe. So, I think, if you are venturing into peer support workspace, be brave with it. Don’t take that easy way out.

This article was originally published in Parity magazine. Learn more about Parity including how to access full editions.

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