Peer navigators help demystify social service system

Navigators will work with customers experiencing poverty and homelessness

Sometimes the best way to understand something is to hear it explained by someone who’s been in your shoes. That’s the idea behind a new program at the Denver Public Library, which this month added three “peer navigators” to their social work team. The peers will provide referrals to resources such as housing, mental health and/or substance abuse services and assist with benefit acquisition for library customers experiencing poverty and homelessness.

The program is funded by a $41,000 grant from the Justice Assistance Grant through the U.S. Department of Justice and is administered locally by Denver Human Services and the Colorado Mental Wellness Network.

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. 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.

“Our peer navigators will help expand our services to even more customers at a time when they need it most,” said Elissa Hardy, the library’s lead community resource specialist. “Not only will they help us assist more people, they can connect with them in ways that are very personal in nature. They’ve experienced homelessness and/or other life adversities and have come out strong on the other side. It makes their interactions very genuine and empathetic.”

The navigators are trained and employed by the Colorado Mental Wellness Network, which oversees the program. The Network is a statewide grassroots organization which seeks to eliminate stigma and discrimination in mental health care and promote person-centered whole healthcare.

“The Denver Public Library is committed to serving anyone who can benefit from our services and resources,” said City Librarian Michelle Jeske. “We’re often one of the few places where some people feel safe seeking information or referrals for basic needs such as shelter, medical or substance abuse resources. Obviously customers experiencing homelessness need these kinds of referrals and our community resource specialist team has made great strides to help these customers get back on their feet.”

The community resource specialist program began in February 2015 with the hiring of Elissa Hardy, the first social worker to join the staff. The library’s Homeless Services Action Committee recommended the position, which is based on similar positions at libraries in San Francisco and Alberta, Canada. Large urban libraries, like the Denver Public Library system, attract a diverse range of customers who use the library for different reasons. Some customers, homeless or not, are facing serious life challenges and may present behavior that makes it difficult for them to receive library services.

“We strive to eliminate barriers to service for everyone,” said Jeske. “Our priority is helping people better themselves through access to information, ideas and experiences that enrich their lives and ultimately the health of Denver and beyond. This kind of coordinated citywide effort helps in very specific ways that benefit the city and our residents.”

The program’s success sparked the Denver City Council into approving a second full-time position to help manage the growing customer base as well as expand the program into branch libraries when needed. The arrival of the navigators comes during the crucial winter months when the library normally sees an uptick in customers experiencing homelessness visiting the library for help.

“Cold weather brings people inside and we want to offer services that make a difference in the City,” Jeske said. “We’ve seen the confusion and frustration of individuals experiencing homelessness and our staff are committed to helping them in ways that are beneficial and work toward their long-term success.”

The library’s core services are also a boon for customers facing life challenges. Individuals can access information through newspapers, magazines and books; public access computers provide a chance to keep up with family and friends, get caught up on current events and connect with local service providers; and the library offers technology training and access to sophisticated equipment.

The peer navigators grant is funded through 2017 with a renewal option if the library team meets standards set by the government and Denver Human Services. The navigators receive specialized training to work with customers and will serve under the supervision of the social workers employed by the library.

Written by ChrisH on January 12, 2017


BD on January 12, 2017


I'm so proud of DPL and its never-ending mission to bring information, culture, and an extended hand to ensure equal access to all, and to do so with so much grace.

Our social workers and Homeless Services Action Committee work extensively and quietly-- and implementing the peer navigator program is yet another great testament to the fiery beacon of public service that DPL is.

Cookie Wolfrom on January 13, 2017


I'm so proud of DPL for creating a helping hand to the unfortunate. I know some libraries in other states go out of their way to enforce keeping them from coming to their library.

David P on January 13, 2017


This is great news! I'm sure many will benefit from the efforts of the three peer navigators.