Ridgetown on short list for Peer-2-Peer support program

·4 min read

Reach Out Chatham-Kent Mission’s Peer-2-Peer program is operating in Blenheim and is expected to come to Ridgetown soon.

R.O.C.K. Missions recently received a $710,000 grant from the Health Canada Substance Use and Addictions Program to expand its Peer-2-Peer program across Chatham-Kent.

The expansion helps fill a critical gap in harm reduction and substance use services for those outside of Chatham where the clinical settings to access support do not exist.

While there is no timetable or priority list for the next communities in line, Renee Geniole, R.O.C.K. Missions’ Operations Coordinator, said, “Ridgetown is a definite possibility.”

“We already have an outreach team that goes to Ridgetown every Friday to distribute lunches and harm reduction,” she said.

Colleen Lewis, Chairperson of the Board for R.O.C.K., said staff and volunteers meet with as many as 50 people each Friday when they come to town.

“It’s hidden homelessness. It’s not as visible as it is in Chatham,” Lewis said of the homeless situation in the Ridgetown area.

Lewis said there have only been a few cases of people living outside here.

“Transient living – or couch surfing – is more prevalent,” she said.

R.O.C.K.’s mission is to go out and find people experiencing homelessness in the community rather than sitting back and waiting for people experiencing homelessness to come to them.

This benevolence started in Chatham in 2019 and expanded to Blenheim and Ridgetown last year, thanks to local financial contributions.

Geniole said the people they service often steer volunteers to other homeless individuals needing help.

“Most of them know each other. They’ll say, ‘Can you check out my buddy,’” Geniole said. “Once we build trust and relationships, it’s spread by word of mouth.”

The staff and volunteers meet discretely with the individuals, offering food, clothing and hygiene products, harm reduction, and referrals to services available in Chatham-Kent.

“Our foot in the door is food. Obviously, people living in poverty often struggle with food insecurity,” said Geniole. “If there’s a place we can hook them up with, whether it’s a phone call to a mental health worker or referring them to Vic Park Place (homeless shelter), our goal is to help them out as much as we can to traditional social services.”

The gap that the Peer-2-Peer program is trying to close is getting the much-needed support for those with ongoing substance abuse issues.

The Peer-2-Peer program began in November 2020 in response to the opioid crisis as community agencies identified a significant gap in Chatham-Kent around peer engagement.

Chatham-Kent experienced a 280% increase in opioid-related emergency department visits and a 400% increase in opioid poisoning-related deaths between 2016 and 2020. This prompted R.O.C.K. Missions to develop the Peer-2-Peer support team, as people with lived and living expertise (P.W.L.E.) are placed in informal roles as leaders and caregivers to understand better the needs of people with substance use and homelessness.

“It’s peers reaching out to peers suffering substance abuse,” Lewis said. “We’re looking at individuals who are struggling, who may not be connected to their families and are bouncing around and don’t have the resources.”

“It’s having a peer that can connect with them and get the support and resources to keep them safe,” said Lewis. “They meet on their own, so it’s a more intimate and confidential conversation, so they know it’s based on a relationship and not just a system.”

Geniole said R.O.C.K. is still working on the structure of its model in Blenheim and the other communities where the Peer-2-Peer will eventually provide service.

The financial boost from Health Canada allows Peer-2-Peer staff, such as the Blenheim employee, to offer support “in a more robust and equitable way,” Genoile said, and bring in additional employees as often as possible for necessary support.

If you know anyone who can benefit from the Peer-2-Peer program, call R.O.C.K. at 226-627-6163.

If you are interested in learning more about R.O.C.K.’s volunteer opportunities, you can call 519-354-0430 ext. 205.

Michael Bennett, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Ridgetown Independent News