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Peer leadership in shelter during COVID-19

April 23, 2020 Category: ColumnFeaturedLongMethodPurpose
In a previous column, I introduced the community-based response to COVID-19 being used in Bethesda Project’s Church Shelter Program (CSP). This approach — adapted from World Health Organization and Red Cross guidelines — is helping us ensure that despite rapidly changing circumstances, staff and guests are working together, cohesively, on COVID-19 prevention and mitigation.

To be implemented well, it requires a preexisting sense of community among shelter guests, or at the very least a handful of peer leaders from within the shelter.

As the term suggests, peer leaders of any kind are given a certain amount of power, authority, or leverage over others. This kind of empowerment in shelter settings can be risky, as guests may decide to use their power, authority, or leverage against each other. But that’s not always the case. Peer leadership in shelter can be done skillfully; and when it is, it helps establish a nonviolent, collaborative social order—something we need in order to skillfully navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the CSP, our process of peer leadership involves three steps:

First, we trust that some kind of community — or camaraderie, collective interest, etc.—is possible among our shelter guests. We trust that they are capable of organizing themselves, relating to one another, and living together nonviolently — or learning how to.

Second, we encourage the natural formation of a social hierarchy in the shelter. We then identify the emerging leaders of that hierarchy and work with them, not against them, to establish social order.

Third, we proactively mentor these leaders in nonviolent ways of using power. This means giving them some power and responsibility in the shelter, then creating opportunities for them to use it benevolently in collaboration with staff.

To give you a better sense of what this looks like in practice, what follows are an example of how I’ve used this process in the CSP in the past, and how I’m using it now as part of our COVID-19 response.

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Early last year, a guest I’ll call “Muhammad” met with me to share his and his peers’ frustrations about a new shelter guest who had not bathed in nearly a week. The person’s body odor was strong, and tensions were rising. Muhammad initially wanted me to force the guest to shower or discharge him from the shelter. Instead, I suggested that Muhammad could give the man soap, razors, clean socks, and a towel, then show him where the showers were and how they work. After a moment, Muhammad agreed and started to fill a small bag with toiletries from my office.

I then suggested that perhaps he could get his peers to donate some of their extra toiletries for the care package. Muhammad liked the idea and accomplished this project by the end of the afternoon. The guest in question positively received the care package and showered that night. In the shelter’s next community meeting, Muhammad reaffirmed to the other guests that if anyone had run out of hygiene supplies, he would help them restock. In the process, he nonviolently resolved a community problem and reaffirmed his own leadership role in the community.

When the spread of COVID-19 began escalating in the Philadelphia area, we realized that staff would have to step up in unique ways in order to address it. But we also recognized the possibilities of peer leadership — and the value of peer leadership — in this response as well. As I have continued to work in the shelter over the past few weeks, I have had time to explore these possibilities.

Here are three examples of what peer leadership in emergency shelter can look like during COVID-19, and how it can help us adhere to public health guidelines during the pandemic.

While working in the Church Shelter Program, all staff are required to wear a surgical face-mask or cloth face-covering to minimize the risk of contagion. We also require all guests in the shelter to do the same. As a result, part of my role is to enforce this standard. Although most guests consistently and faithfully cover their faces at all times, some do not (and for a variety of reasons, such as serious mental illness, forgetfulness, stubbornness, etc.).

As a staff-member, my directive to wear a face-mask or face-covering inherently carries some weight amongst them. But not always. As a result, I’ve made a point to have many conversations with “John,” one of the men in the shelter most respected by the other guests. During these conversations, we’ve reviewed public health guidelines about face-masks and face-coverings, and why they matter for shelter.

The first goal of these conversations was to ensure that John would fully understand and comply with those guidelines. The second goal was that I could then ask John to help monitor his peers’ compliance with them, knowing that while certain guests might resist my authority, they always listen to John and follow his example.

Our COVID-19 prevention and mitigation protocol also involves regular, thorough cleaning of hard surfaces and shared spaces in the shelter. Early on, one of the guests, “Marvin,” stepped up and designated himself as the “Chore Captain.” For Marvin, this meant taking sole responsibility for cleaning the shelter’s bathrooms, spraying down door handles, refilling soap containers, and taking out the trash.

After observing Marvin’s efforts, I praised him and also invited him to step up in a different way — by leaning into the “captain” part of his nickname. This has involved Marvin and I inviting a small number of other guests to be trained in completing chores associated with the COVID-19 cleaning routine. Rather than Marvin doing every chore, his peers do some of them, while Marvin checks back over the results. As a result, Marvin is still able to see himself in a meaningful leadership role as the “Chore Captain,” but without having to complete all the chores. At the same time, more members of the community have learned how to properly keep the shelter clean and sanitized.

Lastly, I’ve made it a point to talk with each of the shelter guests about what they think of the COVID-19 pandemic, how it is affecting daily life, and what the future may look like. This has helped me take the pulse of the community. I’ve learned that some of our shelter guests have significant anxieties about COVID-19, while others have demonstrated tremendous hope and resiliency.

Having identified the guests who are the most emotionally balanced in the shelter means I can invite them to be peer leaders for those who are struggling right now. For example, I can say to “Leroy,” a guest in great spirits: “I really appreciate your optimism here, and your routine of taking a walk everyday to get fresh air. There are some guys here who are really anxious about what’s going on. I think it would be great if you invited Victor to join you on your walk tomorrow and gave him some reassurance.” I may be able to support Victor as a staff-member, but it also matters that he has peer support from men like Leroy right now.

As I’ve written before, COVID-19 is our all-hands-on-deck moment in shelter. In moments like these, we need staff and guests to work together, cohesively, as public health leaders. Although we tend to think of staff-members first and foremost as leaders, in the CSP we are seeing that our guests have that capacity as well.


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