March 16, 2018

Peer Navigators Bring “Lived Experience” to DPL Social Work Team

web_peernavigatorsAcross the country, more and more library systems are embracing their role as de facto matchmakers between social services and the people who need to access them by hiring social workers as staff. Sometimes, though, people who need to interact with these organizations don’t want to find out about them from traditional social workers, but from people who have dealt with them as users. That’s where the Denver Public Library (DPL) Peer Navigators come in.

Peer Navigators are individuals who have managed to find their way through the often complicated paths of America’s social safety net. They’ve learned firsthand what offices to go to, when they’re open, what documents to bring, and other details about the process. And as of January, three of them have joined DPL’s team to supplement the efforts of two full-time social workers and provide insights that can only come from those who have been down the same road.

“Peer navigators are individuals with ‘lived experience,’ meaning they are in recovery and have found stabilization in regards to housing, mental health, and/or substance abuse,” said DPL spokesperson Chris Henning. “The peers will meet with library customers to help them navigate the social service system in Denver and also lead peer discussion groups to increase support to vulnerable populations, such as customers experiencing homelessness.”


In addition to providing support for the social workers already on staff, these navigators provide advice that most social workers can’t, and insights on working with service providers that people who haven’t been on the receiving end of these programs simply don’t have.

“This is important because it creates a level of trust between library customers and the peer navigators,” said Elissa Hardy, who has been a social worker at DPL since 2015. “When we are able to talk to someone who has had a similar experience, we feel more comfortable with their guidance and with the relationship as a whole. In addition, because they’ve navigated the system, the peer navigators know the ins and outs of the agencies.”

There can be a lot of ins and outs at these agencies, where staff and resources are frequently stretched thin. Some providers might require clients to call for an appointment, then call again on the morning of an appointment to confirm and ensure it doesn’t go to someone else, for instance. Other programs may be limited by grant funding, able only to help a certain number of applicants.

The team also invites the agencies to send staff to visit libraries, where they can meet potential clients who may not be aware of the services available to them.

“People come to the library because it is a safe environment and going to an unknown agency can be intimidating,” said Hardy. “Allowing this connection to happen in the safe environment with the already developed relationship with a peer navigator [is] priceless.”

Government bodies like the Denver Department of Human Services and Veterans Administration, charities including Urban Peak and the St. Francis Center, and healthcare organizations such as the Mental Health Center of Denver are all partnering with the library’s expanding team to engage with new clients. And as they do, peer navigators are also offering the institutions the chance to improve how they serve their communities by identifying choke points in their application process or ways that their workflows can be simplified for clients, said Hardy.

DPL’s peer navigators program is funded by a $41,000 grant from the Department of Justice, administered by local social service agencies and running through 2017. After that, the future of the program is unclear, but one thing seems certain, said Henning—demand for the service is likely to continue.

“Denver as a whole has seen a dramatic increase in the number of new residents in the past several years and the number of people experiencing homelessness has also risen,” he told LJ. “At the same time, customers are learning more about our community resource specialists and the work that they do; word is getting out for sure.”

Ian Chant About Ian Chant

Ian Chant is a former editor at LJ and a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Scientific American and Popular Mechanics and on NPR.

Building Literacy-Rich Communities
Hosted by Library Journal and School Library Journal, Stronger Together is a national gathering of thought leaders and innovators from across the country who will share where and how partnerships between school districts and public libraries are having success. Join us May 10–12 at the University of Nebraska Omaha, as we explore the impact these collaborations are having on the institutions, communities, and kids they serve.