Peer support workers Joy Phelps and VCH clinical educator Sally Kupp outside the Molson Overdose Prevention Site in Vancouver. Matt Kieltyka/VCH
Vancouver, BC – As a "first, first responder", Joy Phelps feels an immense sense of accomplishment in her role as a peer worker at the Molson Overdose Prevention Site.
It wasn't that long ago that she was saved from an overdose herself. That act fueled her desire to join other peers saving lives on the frontlines of British Columbia's overdose crisis. The street smarts and skills the 42-year-old picked up through her lived experience can't be taught in a classroom and has made her an invaluable member of the team at Molson.
"The fact that someone saved my life meant the world to me, so I want to go out and help other people," said Phelps. "If you have so much experience around drugs, you can understand what someone is going through because you've gone through it yourself. I can recognize the signs of an overdose and people trust me more because of that."
That know-how and bond with the community goes a long way and has made peers like Phelps the backbone of the region's response to the crisis. Now that she's armed with a Street Degree in Overdose Prevention – a first-of-its-kind peer training certificate from Vancouver Coastal Health and PHS Community Services Society – those skills have been taken to new heights.
"Peers are often the unsung heroes of the overdose crisis and we have so much to learn from their wisdom and experience," said Judy Darcy, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions. "This program harnesses the unique insight of peers and prepares them to both respond to overdose situations and to support people in finding their own pathway to healing and hope."
The Street Degree program was launched in 2017 to ensure that peers working at overdose prevention sites and other harm reduction services could boost their lived experience with formal training in areas such as overdose response, pain management, cultural safety, community resources and managing extreme situations. To date, more than 300 peers from 19 organizations have attended Street Degree courses. Fourteen peers, including Phelps, have completed at least 10 of the 22 available courses needed to graduate with a Street Degree in Overdose Prevention certificate.
"When we first saw a big spike in the overdose crisis, I saw how much of the response was being done by peers. They had the baseline knowledge but, in the midst of the crisis, they were lucky to get maybe 30 minutes of overdose prevention training and then were put to work," said Sally Kupp, a clinical educator at VCH who co-founded the program. "So we thought, 'What if we give them the same high-quality curriculum we're giving to nurses and harm reduction workers and turn it into a peer-informed and peer-led program?' They'd be able to step up into leadership positions, the recognition would look good on their resumes and we'd give them valuable skills if they want to do something different from overdose prevention work."
Jonathan Orr, manager of PHS Overdose Prevention Sites, said the Street Degree program is designed to set peers up for success long after their work in overdose response is over and helps reduce stigma faced by people who use drugs.
"We wanted to support them with training in different way. Instead of top-down training where we come and teach them, we wanted to flip it around and have them design the courses, teach the courses, select what topics they wanted to be taught and really put that peer model forward," said Orr.
Phelps was referred to the program by a friend and immediately gravitated toward the modules. She completed her certificate within a year.
"It goes along with working at an injection site. We handle some pretty wild situations in here and you learn some pretty neat things from the Street Degree," she said. "I put the time in, I went to all these courses and I know that what I'm learning at the Street Degree can be used to help other people. I felt like I had accomplished something. This whole job is a big sense of accomplishment for me, actually. We're frontline. I know without us peers, there wouldn't be as many lives saved."
Orr beams recalling the day Phelps received her certificate.
"She was absolutely bursting with pride about receiving her degree," he said. "She feels like a professional overdose responder. The first, first responder. And she is."
Street Degree courses are held twice a month and are broken into the following modules:
Overdose response basics
Advanced overdose management
Overdose response + Naloxone
First responder collaboration
Safer alcohol use
VCH is responsible for the delivery of $3.3 billion in community, hospital and residential care to more than one million people in communities including Richmond, Vancouver, the North Shore, Sunshine Coast, Sea to Sky corridor, Powell River, Bella Bella and Bella Coola.
About PHS Community Services Society
Founded in 1993, PHS Community Services Society (PHS) is a non-profit housing, health care and community development agency providing services in Vancouver and Victoria, B.C. PHS develops, maintains and advocates for affordable housing for adults who have been marginalized as a result of homelessness, physical, mental health and behavioural issues, substance dependencies and more. We also provide low-barrier harm reduction, drug treatment and primary health care services.
PHS operates and manages 24 low-barrier residences and over 1,500 units of rental housing in Vancouver and Victoria, B.C., including emergency shelters and transitional housing. Most of our housing includes clinical health and mental health supports for residents, including counseling, primary care and overdose prevention services.