Peer Counselors’ experiences inform their work

Among the dedicated staff who help DESC clients are many people who know what it’s like to experience homelessness, behavioral health and substance use disorder. For some staff members that experience is part of their job description.

They are Certified Peer Counselors, people with lived experience who are established in their own recovery and specially trained to assist clients on their journeys.

Peer Counselors partner with a client’s clinical care team to develop recovery goals that reflect a client’s interests. Peers do outreach, work one-on-one with clients for clinical support and host recovery groups, outings and DESC’s Consumer Advisory Board. Often, they assist in managing activities of daily living, explore harm reduction techniques and contribute to wellness and support plans. Peer specialists can draw on their own experiences to help others find hope and make progress. Their personal life experiences uniquely equip them to provide support, encouragement and resources to those seeking DESC services.

To earn certification, counselors receive intensive clinical training through Washington state’s Health Care Authority (HCA), which also administers the oral and written exams. Each state has its own process. Washington’s longest-standing Certified Peer Counselor, Lew Middleton Jr., started DESC’s peer counselor program in 1994. The Lew Middleton Drop-In Center at 216 James St. was named for him. People living on the street may visit the center during the day to shower, use lockers, do laundry, rest, get basic first aid care and meet with their case managers.

In 2022, the Peer Counselor program not only still thrives at 216, 28 peers are also now embedded in programs throughout the agency. They include PACT (Program of Assertive Community Treatment), PATHfinder, BHRT (Behavioral Health Response Team), CSC (Crisis Solutions Center), COAT (Community Outreach and Advocacy Team), SHARP (Services and Housing to Access Recovery Program), HOST (Homeless Outreach Stabilization and Transition) and OTN (Opioid Treatment Network).

Led by DESC Peer PATHfinder Project Supervisor Renee, the PATHfinder team is composed of and driven entirely by four Certified Substance Use Disorder (SUD)-specific Outreach Peer Specialists. They partner with OTN, SAGE, PACT, SHARP, MCT and virtually any other program at DESC and within King County. They reach out to individuals in encampments, emergency departments, supportive housing, in shelters and on the streets to engage in Peer Counseling and harm reduction strategies around risky substance use behaviors.

“Our Peer experience is extremely important to building therapeutic relationships with individuals who are active drug users,” says Renee. “When we share our stories, it helps people to not feel judged and to understand that we know at least some important parts of what they’re going through. By building rapport and Peer relationships with our clients, we offer them hope, education and options, and we partner with them in efforts to prevent overdose and to reach their self-defined recovery goals.”

But before they can help a new client, the counselors must establish trust. After years of broken promises and offers of false hope, clients can understandably be skeptical.

Ray became a Certified Peer Counselor in 2006 and has been with DESC for about 12 years, volunteering at first before training for peer counselor certification. He and DESC clients share the experiences of mental health issues and substance use disorder.

He builds a trusting relationship with the people he mentors, and “when it’s appropriate” shares a piece of his own story, along with various resources.

The city’s many encampments show the problem’s depth. Ray knows that passersby wonder about those living on the streets, and says they see them as throwaway people.

“They have precious qualities and need support,” Ray says.

“People fail to recognize that there might be a very kind person” in that struggling individual before them. And he says that when supportive housing and resources are available and offered, people will accept them.

“My favorite thing is when people get housing and get employment,” Ray says. “Housing is 50 percent of it. Then they share their stories.”

Sasha earned her Peer Counselor Certification about three years ago, after her own experience with addiction and mental health. She had been working with youth, but says, “I have a warm spot for people who are experiencing homelessness.”

She leads peer groups and works one-on-one with clients and their addiction and recovery goals. Her caseload averages 16 people, and one of her clients is now going back to school.

“My favorite thing about this job is the people I serve,” she says. “I really appreciate what I have, and I hope to provide hope and care and compassion.

“Having empathy is one of the biggest things, not just sympathy, patience and love. A lot of clients don’t receive loving support.”

The peers do a lot of mental health crisis intervention. The clients are “the most intelligent, strongest, caring people I know. It’s why I keep coming back to work, there is so much joy. You make more of an impact than you know.”

Peer Project Supervisor Dan Westforth leads three Peer Counselors. He’s been in that job for about 18 months, coming from an RC position he enjoyed at DESC’s Lyon Building. But he wanted to get peer counselor training.

“I got into this work because of past mental health issues and substance use,” Dan says. “It gives me purpose.”

COVID-19 required programs to adjust operations while simultaneously coping with, and helping clients cope with, new stressors the pandemic has created. Dan says they had to “kind of re-form how the drop-in center would work,” offering support groups twice a day. For example, there is a Wellness Recovery Action Plan group, and coming soon, a Hearing Voices Group. The drop-in center has hosted several DESC vaccine clinics. They serve lunches provided by Fare Start to about 25 DESC clients outside the center, and try to redirect those who are not clients to intake sessions for case management and other help.

The pandemic also created a need for more outreach.

“People are suffering from isolation, and from things like lack of bathrooms. Sweeps are tough on everybody,” Dan says.

He and the counselors plan together every morning. A support group meets from 9-10 a.m., followed by volunteers who come in to make lunches and offer snacks and coffee. There is a signup list for laundry, shower and bathrooms.

“We give people hope. You get to know people, it’s tough, but it is possible,” Dan says. “I really like making that connection with folks.”