Celebrating Peer Support Specialists in Chicago

236_Tamera Cook_15Tamara Cook, a Jesse Brown VA Medical Center HUD VASH Peer Support Specialist, is a change maker who has helped countless Veterans who have experienced homelessness in their transition into housing. Having experienced homelessness herself for more than five years, she can use her own personal experience to build relationships of trust with fellow Veterans whom she supports through advocacy, referrals, and as someone with whom people can talk when they are struggling.

“Many people who have lived on the streets for a very long time need help learning the etiquette of living in an apartment,” Tamara shared, “such as not having loud music at all hours of the night or having a lot of company running in and out.  I liken it to how I had to adjust to living inside after living on the streets, and in this way I am able to connect with people and also help them with this adjustment.”

Prior to serving as a HUD VASH Peer Support Specialist, Tamara worked for the VA for three years as a Psychiatric Technician. She commented that she was also able to offer peer support in that role to Veterans impacted by mental illness, though that was not the main focus of her work, and this led her to her current role.

305_Tamera Training_2014Tamara visits with Veterans who have received HUD VASH vouchers in the community, helps them to work with their landlords so that they are able to successfully maintain their housing, and also helps Veterans in a variety of ways to become integrated into the community and live their best life.  Having once been part of the HUD VASH program, Tamara’s experience is a testimonial to one’s ability to move on from supportive housing (if this is one’s goal and doing so would be helpful to the household) with the appropriate support.

Because Tamara has a 17-year old daughter--of whom she is very proud—she can connect with other parents, who either have custody of their children or are working to be reunited with them.

When asked why peer support is vital to the HUD VASH program and others, Tamara shared that “peer support should be promoted and given the opportunity to grow, because peers have a knowledge and understanding that goes beyond book knowledge--we have experienced it. No one can tell you about child birth if they have not gone through it themselves, and this is the same thing. Peers give, through their own stories, a sense of hope to those who may struggle.” She offered examples such as understanding the devastating effects of being on medication that is not helping, the overwhelming feeling of needing to find the resources to furnish your new home, and what it is like to begin parenting again when you have been separated from your child.

Clearly the work of Peer Support Specialists is critical, and we salute Tamara and others in similar roles who work day in and day out to end homelessness, promote recovery, and share of themselves in a way that can only be done by those who have been there before.

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