Peers in Medway are taking partnerships to a new level with impressive results. DDN sees them in action.
A man in a grey tracksuit wanders around Chatham High Street, duffle bag in one hand, drink can in the other. He’s newly released from prison with nowhere to head and no real plan.
Jenna and Sam spot him and head over with a casual ‘how’s it going?’ They’re peer workers at Medway Hope – part of Open Road’s support and recovery network in partnership with Turning Point – and within minutes they’ve established that he needs meds as well as somewhere to stay. A quick phone call and he’s booked in for a prescription and linked to local services. He seems surprised – and grateful to be in the right place at the right time.
For Jenna and Sam – and their peers at Medway Hope – this is always a good place, and using their Red Card scheme makes it easier for it to be the right time. The scheme represents a hotline to services, meaning they can call a colleague and arrange a fast-track appointment for someone they come across who is ready for help. It opens the door to services and makes it much easier for someone to walk through it.
The team brandish naloxone kits when they’re out and about – a conversation starter as well as a vital harm reduction intervention. They wear their naloxone shirts and are proud to spread the word as Medway naloxone peers. On their route down the high street they stop to talk to two young men who are willing to hear more and engage in answering some questions – ‘What are the main causes of an overdose? When are the high-risk times? What are the signs and symptoms of an overdose? What should you not do in an overdose situation…?’ The men carry on their way with naloxone kits and the knowledge and confidence to use them, saying they ‘learned something very useful’.
But the peers’ work is not just about giving out kits. ‘I target anybody and everybody that’ll listen to me,’ says Sam. ‘It’s about throwing myself in the deep end, saying you might not use drugs yourself but be around someone who does. It’s generally well received.’
Stepping through a modest door on the high street offers up a warm welcome at Open Road, with comfy chairs, coffee and cheerful chatter. Art adorns the walls and it’s a bright and creative space. Today the Medway Hope naloxone champion steering group has assembled – peers, commissioners and colleagues from the providers, Turning Point and Open Road, who work closely together to offer drug and alcohol services and recovery support. The forum is also regularly attended by representatives from police and the local council, who link with the many services across immigration, community safety, housing and health. George Charlton – consultant, trainer and ‘Naloxone Man’, who has been supporting the peers – has come down from the North East and all the participants are ‘buzzing’ to see each other.
As they work through an agenda that covers their progress over the last few months they realise their partnership working is paying off and results are tangible – for clients and for the team members themselves. The growth and development of the peer group is an important part of this story.
From tentative beginnings and with a lot of encouragement and (justified) positive feedback, the peers have gone from strength to strength and grown in confidence. The Open Road PREMIER Award takes pride of place in the reception area and they explain that it’s the first time that a project, rather than a service, has won it – all achieved in six months. ‘You’re leading the way, cutting your own path,’ George tells them. ‘People are here today because of your interventions.
Everyone seems motivated by the momentum and keen to grow the partnership. Commissioner Claire Hurcum has been a key facilitator, and says she is proud of what the team of five peers have achieved together in six months. ‘I can see the growth in all of you. As commissioners we’re really pleased – you should be really proud of yourselves,’ she tells them. She hoped there would be further expansion of the team’s work, and that it would lead to them becoming a peer-led support network. With George’s encouragement, the group went on to discuss next steps and aspirations – perhaps they could become a lived experience recovery organisation (LERO) or develop a community interest company (CIC). The team dynamic felt full of possibilities.
The steering group ran smoothly and it was full of positivity and great feedback. But it’s clear that a lot of hard work has happened – at a fast pace – to create this environment, and a determination to share the vision, particularly with so many partners on board. ‘We’re all just people with a common goal – to move things forward,’ said George after the meeting. ‘You hear talk of drug users as hidden populations, but they’re not – it could be providers who are hidden in buildings. Peers are the first people to see trends.’
The team had built skills around naloxone ‘because of the immediacy’, but a whole raft of harm reduction initiatives had followed swiftly within six months – training with needle and syringe programmes, sexual health advice and condoms, dry blood spot testing and dealing with drugs litter. ‘It’s really action orientated… we slice straight though,’ he said, adding that much depended on ‘the need to get our heads out of bureaucracy and do some straight talking, recognising the strengths of both parties. Then the provider becomes a real asset.’
Svajune Ulinskiene, service manager at Turning Point, agreed that ‘we’re trying to achieve the same goal’ and always sought to be inclusive. Peers were a vital part of understanding the needs of the area, she said and had told them at the meeting, ‘the knowledge you bring is amazing’. Doing a care plan meant working with lots of different services, not just substance misuse, to look at what recovery was about for the individual. Assessing and adjusting how services operated involved talking to the peers and then thinking about the evidence.
While Turning Point had always worked with peers, COVID had led them to work in a different way, she said: ‘Before, we were risk averse, but we had to change and act quickly. It changed the clinicians’ thinking.’ They needed to listen, respond and work closely together to make sure help reached those who depended on it.
Jo Payne, volunteer and building recovery coordinator, has worked with Open Road since 2018 and has seen the peer support develop as the partnerships have evolved. The peer projects now reach into all areas of work – outreach, naloxone, sexual health, the hep C clinic, rough sleeper initiatives with the council, the Ladies’ Night project with sex workers. With 24 peer mentors, ‘it’s known as a safe place to be,’ she says. Furthermore, ‘peer mentor support has become integral to services’ and peer mentors regularly work at Turning Point, co-facilitating groups.
It’s also given the capacity to develop partnerships to integrate into communities, she explains, with relapse prevention groups, and diversionary projects such as allotments, art and mindfulness. The walls of their space at Open Road are covered in paintings and a community arts exhibition is being planned for July. ‘We’re known for the social side here,’ she says.
Leaving the building with a group of peers proves the point, as Brian advances on the group, all hugs and smiles. His desperate years of alcohol, fighting and prison are behind him, he says. Through embarking on college courses he was put in touch with Open Road, and his life changed. He found the support he needed, discovered love and happiness, and ‘never looked back’. ‘It’s nice to be on the giving end,’ he says, heading into the service to play his part. And so the network keeps growing and flourishing, stronger for the experience of every member.