Program pairs workers with clients with similar life experiences
By Hilary Caton
Alcoholism, homelessness and drug addiction are only a few of their shared lived experiences.
But that’s what makes them perfect for the job. It’s their relatability. They’ve battled and conquered the demons some of their clients are gearing up to face.
Eva Scott, a peer outreach worker for Sistering in Parkdale, is a recovered alcoholic who previously drank for 22 years, which eventually landed her on the streets of Toronto.
“Queen and Bathurst (Street) was my home for two years,” Scott said.
She was just 11 years old when she began drinking. She eventually dropped out of school. She never reached out to family for help. She said she didn’t want to burden her family who didn’t drink with her problems. So the homeless of Toronto became what she calls her street family.
She quit drinking in 2009 after relapsing a few times in the years prior.
“I did it for myself that time. I sat there on the steps of The Meeting Place at Queen and Bathurst and I said, ‘I can’t keep doing this to myself. I got to stop what I’m doing,” she told The Villager.
She said she was fed up with the endless cycle of drunkenness and hangovers, and wanted better for herself.
“Living on the streets, seeing people in the morning; I was all hung over and depressed. Waking up I would see people taking their kids to school or going to work and I thought to myself, ‘I wish I could be like that.’”
Soon after, Scott asked to be sent to a treatment facility. She was referred to a recovery program in Kenora, Ont., where she spent the next 30 days, and has been sober ever since.
In 2010, she became an outreach worker for Sistering’s Outreach Program in Parkdale. It runs in partnership with PARC’s program, now in its fifth year, which also has peer workers in West Neighbourhood House. Combined, the three agencies have about six workers, who have at least 500 hours of peer outreach training.
“It’s brought together a diverse team with a diverse background,” said Maryamm Himid, the peer outreach program coordinator at PARC. “Each member of the team has a unique experience with a range of issues.
“It’s cool to see them work together, and share their experiences and help support people.”
Each worker helps their clients access services in the community from chronic medical care to legal services to navigating the health-care and social systems by accompanying them to their appointments and advocating for them. Clients are even provided tokens and taxi vouchers to help with transportation costs.
The program was initially created to bridge a gap in the system for the care of the homeless and marginalized from emergency centres.
“There were no resources for them to access when they came out of that care. Even in the drop-ins, people were coming, but most of the time they were going to emergency centres and disappearing onto the streets,” Himid said.
The goal of the program is to divert those clients from emergency room visits and to increase their access to primary and psychicatric care. In 2014, the workers have helped and connected with more than 1,000 clients. So far for the first nine months of 2015 they’ve helped 568 clients, Himid said.
It’s funded by the Toronto Central Local Health Integrated Network (TC-LHIN). The program is accessed through a referral process from various agencies and organizations including the Centre of Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), hospitals and the Coordinated Access to Care for the Homeless (CATCH).
Peer workers are paired with a client who is in their catchment area in the west end. Clients range from men and women in their 20s to well into their 80s with a similar lived-experience as their peer support worker. While Himid said it’s important clients are paired up with someone who can understand what they’ve been throughbut, it doesn’t work out that way every time.
Different life experiences doesn’t stop Scott from connecting with that person.
“For me, I look at it as equal. Everybody is equal. All of us may have mental health issues in one way or another,” she explained.
“I just keep talking to them. Ask questions to get them comfortable talking and once they start talking, I shut myself up and listen. They just need somebody to talk to.”
In addition to helping clients to and from various appointments, Scott also does community outreach at various shelters and agencies in the neighbourhood. Sometimes it’s dropping by a seniors home a few times a week, other times it’s popping by her old stomping ground at The Meeting Place.
She often shares her story with clients to establish common ground. A few years ago, after she opened up about her struggle with alcoholism with a client going through the same thing, he said something to her, she said, she’ll never forget.
“He was so happy after I told him my own struggle with alcoholism and how I overcame it, he said to me, ‘You know what, you just gave me hope,’” she said holding back her emotions.
“I was so happy. That’s the first person that’s ever told me that.”
It’s those moments that keep Scott going because some days can be tough.
Some clients are no shows, Himid said, other have no phone or no fixed address so they can be difficult to track. Sometimes clients don’t open up at all and refuse help. However, she said, this program has been able allow clients to connect to peer outreach workers in ways some can’t with their social worker or case worker.
“It’s friendlier and more laid back, so they open up more,” she said.
“That is one of the key factors as to why this program is still so important.”
The program aims to help people overcome a hurdle in life that may seem insurmountable without that added help. It’s a program Scott said she wishes was there for her when she needed it all those years ago.
“I never got this kind of help before,” she said, reflecting on her journey.
“But I really love what I’m doing. Now I get the chance to help people in ways I wished some helped me, which I’m so grateful for.”
This article is taken from InsideToronto.com.