Despite the nasty freezing drizzle that made walking difficult last Friday morning, 30 volunteers were waiting in line when the doors of the Amistad Recovery Center opened at 8:30 a.m.

These are people with mental illness, some homeless, who arrive early to volunteer and prepare the meals before the Portland mental health peer recovery center opens for other members at 9 a.m. For those who do have apartments, many don’t really have any other place to go except the center.

“Folks come here because they find a sense of belonging,” Amistad Director Peter Driscoll said Friday. “If they have behavioral issues, there’s not a lot of places they can be. We serve those who come here, we don’t ask for proof of insurance or a Medicaid card, there are no barriers.”

Many of the clients do not feel safe at the Preble Street Resource Center, or at the city shelter. They feel safe at Amistad, which serves 85 lunches each day.

The social support network for clients that has been developed by Amistad, and 11 other peer support centers statewide, is threatened by a recent policy change by the Department of Health and Human Services, which recently issued a Request for Proposals that would cut the number of centers from 12 to eight.

The RFP would also refocus the work of those centers to vocational training and group recovery efforts, and away from the social support and meal services that clients depend on. Driscoll warned that Amistad would not survive if it lost the $336,000 it receives in annual state funding, adding that many of his clients receive Social Security and are unable to work.

The RFP process has forced the centers to compete with each other, rather than collaborate, and Amistad will be competing with a Sweetser program in Brunswick to serve Cumberland County. And where there are now three separate centers that serve a large area from Lewiston to Farmington and Rumford, that work would go to one center, likely in Lewiston. Consumers would have difficulty traveling to Lewiston services from western Maine.

The department’s new strategy for peer centers is just one proposal in a long list that have left the community of mental health clients and providers on edge in recent weeks.

These changes include a far-reaching new policy that would limit the number of patients who could access intensive case-management services. The department recently notified consumers who use the service, outlined under Section 17 of Medicaid, that they would be dropped unless they have a diagnosis of schizophrenia or schizo-affective disorder.

When clients tried to contact department officials for more information, they couldn’t find it. They were referred back to providers, who often could not answer their questions.

“The community is in a significant state of trauma,” Simone Maline, executive director of the Consumer Council of Maine, said at a hearing last week. “The whole safety net of the entire mental health system is being pulled out from under us, and I don’t know what’s going to happen. The consumers don’t know the difference between Section 17 and Section 65 when they get these letters.”

Maline said that despite her own repeated phone calls, she could not access more information on the new policy from department officials.

Those affected by the policy change have brought a petition to the Legislature, which may review the Section 17 changes.

Even if there is some merit in the state’s policy shifts seeking to transition clients into employment, the seemingly ruthless policy roll-out has unnecessarily roiled a community of clients and service providers.

And as Maline told legislative committee members last week, “If folks want to move forward, they need basic services to move on from.”

Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.

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