Workforce Development Hacks for SSPs

Considerations When Working with Peers

Despite stereotypes, people who use drugs, sex workers, and other people who are marginalized come from many walks of life and have many patterns of behavior. Many of the considerations here come from leaders managing chaotic employees – an important source of wisdom for all employers, but please remember that not every person using drugs is chaotic.

  • Expect to train peers personally, informally, and in short doses – be prepared to offer training in chunks that are ninety minutes or less and refer to the person’s lived experience.
  • Expect to train everyone – peers may be experts in drug use but they may have things to learn about biowaste safety, de-escalation, how your program works, and even safer injection – expect to train all workers in the basics.
  • Be open to learning– the peers are already experts and will also have things to teach.
  • Have varying levels of involvement or employment – the most successful peer programs have levels of employment that allow people to stay employed even when their drug use is more chaotic. For example, an organization may have regular schedules for folks who can keep up with them and relief slots on the schedule for folks who are new or more chaotically using.
  • Employee expectations apply to everyone – create and enforce the same reasonable and compassionate policies for all employees. These policies should relate to behavior, but not drug use per se.
  • Do NOT create policies that set peers up for failure – some peers may not be familiar with “professional cultural expectations”, such as perfect punctuality and what “workplace appropriate” attire or humor might be. Therefore setting up cultural expectations when they are not essential for your program creates situations where peers who are doing good work might “fail” anyway.
  • Train for redundancy – SSPs should cross-train all staff in multiple areas. This is especially true if you are hiring folks who may be in chaotic use.
  • Work to people’s strengths – observe people, figure out what they are good at, and put them there. For example, if you have someone who is great with the public but weaker on paperwork and someone else who is great on paperwork but finds direct contact with the public challenging, put those people in appropriate roles that will play to their strengths.
  • Work with people’s schedules – one of the biggest barriers peer employees and volunteers face is the expectation they will be at a place at a given time, especially in the morning. As possible, work with peers who have scheduling issues to find a schedule they can succeed in.
  • Increase responsibility incrementally – drop-in shifts, fewer initial hours, and “piece work” are great ways to start having people gradually take on responsibility.
  • Allow people to come and go – another thing the best peer programs have in common is that they are flexible and understanding, allowing more chaotic peers to increase or decrease their responsibilities as necessary.
  • Pay people in a way that works for them – peers and other people with less stability often do not have access to bank accounts. In order to cash a check, someone without a bank account has to pay a check cashing business up to 12% of the check’s value in fees. These businesses exploit poor people, and iIt would be unethical for an SSP to put an employee in a position to lose some of the money they have earned in this way. Because of this, organizations must be prepared to pay employees in cash or by cash app if an employee needs it.
  • Consider piece work – instead of requiring hourly work and paying an hourly rate, organizations may consider paying by the job instead. This may mean deciding on the value of an activity (say one SSP shift or 50 kits packed) and paying accordingly.
  • Hold people with love no matter what – one of the most important things about employing peers is that no matter what, they should be treated with dignity and compassion in every circumstance, even those where discipline, terminating employment, or severing a relationship is necessary.

More Resources

Don’t reinvent the wheel
During our development Harm Reduction Hacks have collected together a large number of resources from around the web you can find these in our resource folder in Google Docs. We are also always looking for more so help us by suggesting any resources we may have missed.
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The hacks on this site are shared with you under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International licence. This allows you (with attribution) to adapt content for your own use, although we do ask you to then also allow others to have equal access to anything you develop. More details of this licence can be found on the Creative Commons website.


We do not claim that this is an exhaustive set of strategies, shortcuts, or tips for running an SSP. What we do suggest is that Harm Reduction Hacks offers down-to-earth, practical information for being a better leader, starting and running an SSP, and providing syringe access services. We feel we can say this with confidence because the Hacks are based on interviews with, and the experiences of, literally generations of people who have been doing harm reduction work.

Please note that nothing in this guide should be construed as legal advice. Please consult an attorney local to your area to ensure your program is in compliance with all local, state and federal regulations that apply to your situation. 

Harm Reduction Hacks site design and implimentation by Nigel Brunsdon

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