Workforce Development Hacks for SSPs

Why Hire People Who Use Drugs (and Other Peers)

There are many reasons why programs have historically been resistant to peer involvement. Sadly, one of the main reasons is stigma, and the regulations that have resulted from stigma, about people who use drugs and other peers. Traditional stereotypes about people who use drugs, especially those using chaotically or those using so-called “hard” drugs like opioids and stimulants, are that they are unreliable, untrustworthy, and incapable. Similar unfair stigma exists about sex workers (lazy, untrustworthy, unreliable, dishonest), folks suffering mental illness (incapable, frightening, dangerous, completely irrational) and the unhoused (lazy, dishonest, dirty, pathetic).

As with every group that unfair stereotypes have been applied to, the fact is that none of these things are true about every individual in any group even though there may be individuals in every group who exhibit these traits. Importantly, the evidence is clear – peer-involved programs reach more people more effectively than those who are only staffed by so-called “professionals”.

The stigma around drug use is so strong that it is often made into workplace policy banning “drug use” and calling for invasive practices such as drug testing.

Here are a few important reasons why employing peers is critical, especially for programs that are not created by people who use drugs:

  • Peers are experts – this is, by far, the most important reason to hire peers and put them in decision making roles. They are experts on using drugs, doing sex work, navigating being unhoused and/or mental illness. It is universally true that people who have personal experience understand things more clearly than those who only know about them in the abstract. This is especially true when talking about highly stigmatized activities.
  • They have authority – peers often have a moral and expert authority that people who are naïve to those experiences can never have.
  • It helps address structural violence – many marginalized people face the structural violence caused by poverty and other structures of inequality, alongside stereotypes about who they are and what they are capable of. This creates a vicious cycle in which people will not hire marginalized or criminalized people, which only perpetuates the cycle of poverty and criminality. Giving people work and legitimate sources of income is an incredibly concrete thing SSPs can do to address that structural violence, one employee at a time.
  • It shows the community you’re committed – hiring people from the community shows that an organization is authentically committed to being a part of that community.
  • Provides people with skills and experience – because many of the people served by harm reduction programs have been criminalized, they may have little or no experience in the mainstream workforce. Harm reduction work can be a meaningful step toward sustainable employment and economic empowerment.
  • Strengthens community – harm reduction organizations thrive best when they are a part of, and form their own, communities. Making the people of the community a working part of an organization builds the program into the very fabric of the community.
  • Gives peers esteem and a path to belonging – working to help others is a way for people to build a sense of belonging and esteem, both of which are deeply undermined by the stigma of being a marginalized person.

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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