Community Engagement Specialist Jake Hammer, as seen in a mid-February photo, works with people who have problems in their lives – from mental health difficulties to homelessness, among other matters. He has made 314 referrals through June 30. Biddeford City Council recently agreed to contract for two additional workers. Tammy Wells Photo

BIDDEFORD — Those who work or volunteer at  Seeds of Hope Neighborhood Center are seeing more people with mental health problems coming through the door, Rev. Shirley Bowen told he Biddeford City Council July 20.

“We’re seeing such extreme mental health issues,” she said. “Our folks are hurting badly and it’s at a level we haven’t seen for many years.”

The council that night was contemplating whether to add two additional community engagement specialists under contract with Spurwink, which it did, bringing the number to three. The vote was unanimous.

For the first half of 2021, the Biddeford Police Department’s Communications Center has dispatched public safety units 334 times — an average of 1.9 times a day, for 103 attempted or threatened suicide calls and 231 mental illness cases, according to a report prepared by Police Chief Roger Beaupre.

Since January, Community Engagement Specialist Jake Hammer, under contract from Spurwink to Biddeford Police Department, has handled 314 referrals resulting from the 334 calls, Beaupre said in a memo to the City Council.

As a community engagement specialist, Hammer’s tasks often entail finding care for those with mental health issues, and other sorts of help too, ranging from housing, to counseling, rent relief, heating oil, food resources, or “whatever the need is,” Hammer said in a March interview.

Beaupre noted that 163 people accounted for the 334 calls through the first half of this calendar year. Of those, one person was involved in 35 dispatches for assistance, another for 34, and 124 were involved in one dispatch each. Five people averaged 20 calls each during the period.

The City Council approved Beaupre’s initial request for a community engagement specialist in October. Part of that position, about $32,000, was paid through a grant.

Bowen said Seeds of Hope Neighborhood Center, a drop-in center which offers a morning meal, employment support, digital literacy training and assistance navigating health care, among other supports, calls Hammer as often as a couple of times a day, several days a week.

“I’m really concerned it’s going to blow up if we can’t get more consistent intervention, and Jake is just everywhere, and people love him and he’s effective,” said Bowen. “We need more people like him.”

The overall cost for all three specialists is  $230,000 in the first year, and $237,000 in the second, according to the proposal by Spurwink.

Because Hammer’s position was already in the budget, along with the time it may take to fill the new positions, the funding for the two additional personnel would be about $135,000 this fiscal year, City Manager Jim Bennett said in a memo to the council.

Bennett suggested the city might be able to recover the costs from savings that could ensue through the regular turnover of personnel in the police department.

“We would also evaluate with the next vacancy to see if the employment of these additional members would create an opportunity to hold that position vacant for an extended amount of time,” Bennett wrote. “Of course, any savings that would not be obtained could be absorbed by the contingency (fund).”

Council President John McCurry said he supported contracting for the two additional community engagement positions, but not by leaving police positions vacant.

“We should fund this but don’t want to hold off on getting police officers in their positions because it takes so long to get them trained,” said McCurry. He said he would rather see contingency tapped, if necessary, or use some carryover from the prior fiscal year to fund the two contracted positions.

Councilor Amy Clearwater said she supported adding the two positions and thanked the Police Department for bringing the matter forward.

“I strongly support adding this additional staff,” said Clearwater. “I defer to the chief in terms of funding.”

“I’m very proud of our Police Department and our first responders,” said Councilor Doris Ortiz. “This is a no brainer. We are at a time when we need this. This may help us hold on until it hopefully subsides.”

Comments are not available on this story.