In Outreach Work, No Substitute for Peers

As an adolescent, Nicole Bush lived on the streets of Denver, Colorado, for a time. She escaped, thanks to the staff and programs of youth service provider Urban Peak. When she became ready for employment, the agency hired her as a peer outreach worker, a youth who accompanies adult outreach staff on their shifts.

Bush found that having experienced homelessness made her job easier. She knew what youth were going through—she’d been there—and she knew how to conduct herself in the tough street environment. Now in her twenties, she works full time on Urban Peak’s street outreach team.

“It’s easy for me to talk to a lot of different kids,” she says. “They just feel comfortable with me, my language, my body language. I look approachable, appearance-wise. That’s the main thing.”

By hiring young people, agencies can overcome one of the biggest obstacles in reaching homeless adolescents: the difficulty of forming trusting relationships with youth who, time and again, have been hurt and victimized by adults in their lives. While most street outreach programs make an effort to hire staff members who reflect the youth population in cultural background and life experience, youth and adults agree that there’s really no substitute for peer-to-peer interaction.

Someone to relate to

Some agencies favor peer workers who have been homeless or on the brink of homelessness. “A number of our peer outreach workers have been on the street,” says Andy Peters, associate director for program development at the Long Island Crisis Center in New York. “Or they can relate to those living on the street because they might have been at risk themselves.They may have been couch surfing. Others are highly sensitive to it because they come from families who are struggling economically.”

Formerly homeless youth may have life experiences that are valuable to street youth. They can share advice on navigating services, trying to obtain identification, and dealing with loneliness and fear. But regardless of a potential peer worker’s personal, family, and economic background, street outreach programs look for peers who can relate to everyday problems.

“There are certain things that happen to everybody, or that everyone goes through, like trouble with parents or friends in school,” says Sarah Gunner, who served as a peer outreach worker at CAPTAIN Youth and Family Services in Clifton Park, New York.

Considerations and accommodations

For all the benefits that peer outreach can bring, programs must also recognize the amount of time, energy, and commitment required to assure that young people have the necessary training and opportunities to become successful outreach workers. Similarly, youth should know what the job entails and understand what’s expected.

Most programs require that peer outreach workers are clean and sober and have stable living arrangements. Programs also develop specific on-the-job guidelines, such as no shifts past 9 p.m.—even with parents’ permission.

Outreach coordinators should be prepared to make accommodations for young outreach workers when necessary. This may mean taking school schedules into consideration, providing extra feedback on a young person’s job performance, and not sending youth to parts of town in which they feel uncomfortable working. Adult staff also need to properly train and supervise youth.

“I can’t emphasize enough how important training and ongoing supervision are, and regularly checking in with young people doing outreach work,” says Dennis Lundberg, program supervisor for outreach programs at Janus Youth Programs in Portland, Oregon. Lundberg’s staff supervisors closely monitor peers and train them regularly on topics including personal boundaries and neutrality.

Setting boundaries

Learning to separate the personal from their work can be especially tricky for adolescent outreach workers stepping into an emotionally draining job that may be their first. They need to know how to establish professional distance between themselves and others.

“Setting boundaries might mean not working with people that you know from outside of work, or not getting involved in, or even hearing about, cases involving someone you know,” says Rosemary Fister, 22, who has conducted street outreach for Lutheran Social Services in St. Paul, Minnesota, for over 2 years. It might also mean not associating socially with people who live on the street.

Taking on the role of neutral observer can pose particular challenges for peers who have been homeless. Often, they confront issues of saving face or maintaining their street credibility. Former friends might ask, “What’s the matter? Now you’re doing this, you can’t hang out with us anymore?” Peer outreach workers should explain what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.

“You have to have boundaries when it comes to old friends,” Bush says. “It’s hard seeing people that you know out there. You just hope to inspire them or give them hope to do better.” She says peer workers should process their experiences by talking to a supervisor who can help them deal with peer pressure.

Lundberg believes it’s best for peer outreach workers to be several years removed from living on the street before doing outreach work. In thattime, they can make new friends and develop a new support system.

If not enough time has elapsed or the young person hasn’t had thorough training, things can go wrong. “You’ve got to make sure that the person you hire is in a good place and won’t relapse because it could really hurt a lot of clients if a peer outreach worker messes up,” Bush says. “These kids put a lot of faith in peer outreach workers.”

One important lesson peers must learn, according to Jasmine Pettet, a peer outreach worker in Portland, Oregon, is not to share information about their personal lives. Another: “We don’t hug the clients we’re working with,” she says. “It can be taken the wrong way, especially for kids who have been sexually abused.”

Even with the proper training, outreach work can be difficult. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to grasp what kids have really gone through,” Gunner says. “Sometimes you have to try hard not to act shocked.”

Something to offer

When peer outreach really works, it’s not just the street youth who benefit, peers and adult supervisors say. Adolescent outreach workers, often at risk themselves, receive training, learn new skills, gain positive relationships with adult staff, and develop school and career goals.

The position teaches youth who have never before held a job how to act in a work environment. Youth have the freedom to make both decisions and mistakes, outreach coordinators say, while being held accountable by their agencies. This means they must demonstrate a strong work ethic, reliability, and commitment.

Peer workers say they also gain something more important than skills. By doing relevant work that produces meaningful outcomes for their communities, many young people discover they have a lot to offer the world.

“Young people see they can have an impact on people,” Lundberg says. “It’s very empowering to be in that role, to be in a position to be a role model. It can help build self esteem. It can help a young person envision something for themselves that they could not imagine before—power over their own lives.”

Bush, of Urban Peak, is a case in point. “It’s awesome to give these kids tools and see them flourish into healthy adults,” she says. “Now I couldn’t picture myself doing any other kind of work.”