3.6 Peer support work to enhance services for youth experiencing homelessness

Across contexts, peer workers and peer mentors are becoming an increasingly important resource in delivering youth-focused programming for young people who are homeless or street involved. Peer work has been established across a number of practice areas, including public health, addictions, education, and community-based research. The most considerable development in the role has been within the mental health sector, where peer work is gaining increasing visibility and legitimacy as a central component of a recovery-based approach that is demonstrating positive outcomes (Nesta, 2015). While the incorporation of adult peers is relatively well established in many service sectors, youth and young adult involvement is still developing. 

Peer work can encompass a number of activities, and although the role lacks a clear definition, a defining feature is the use of lived experience as a support to individuals in similar circumstances (Vandewalle et al., 2016). Within this broad conceptualization, various authors (Ansell & Insley, 2013; Ontario Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health, 2016; Paradis, Bardy, Cummings, Athumani, & Pereira, 2012) have identified the common peer worker roles. These roles include: 

  • Peer mentor: partners with a client or participant and offers support and encouragement regarding program-specific goals and broader life goals; 
  • Peer educator: helps develop educational materials and leads educational presentations and workshops; 
  • Peer navigator: provides help with systems navigation (e.g., accompanying people to appointments, connecting to services, helping to fill out paperwork); 
  • Peer specialist: a broader role that encompasses some of the above activities and might include some case management, advocacy, and group facilitation; and 
  • Self-help and mutual aid group: this includes peer support groups and peer knowledge exchanges.
Sean Kidd, Natasha Slesnick, Tyler Frederick, Jeff Karabanow, Stephen Gaetz
Publication Date: 
Canadian Observatory on Homelessness Press