Gabriel Carter Jr., a peer support specialist at Spurwink’s new crisis center on Elm Street in Portland, says he struggled for years with addictions. But he finally asked for help and meant it. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Matt Brown made himself a business card for his job at the Living Room Crisis Center on Elm Street in Portland. After his name, he wrote “M.M.C.” letters that stand not for some advanced degree but for “Master of Mac and Cheese.”

That’s fitting at this crisis center. Half the staff are clinicians, such as nurses. Half are peer support specialists like Brown, whose life experiences are their credentials. Open since February, the center is an alternative for people who are experiencing a mental health crisis and who might otherwise end up in an emergency room or the county jail. Everyone who works here is using their skills to make sure visitors get the help they need without those more stressful interventions.

“We have the opportunity here to be those folks that do communicate that you are seen, you are heard,” Brown said. “And it can be anything from, ‘I’m going to make you a bowl of mac ‘n cheese.’”

The center is the first of its kind in Maine and a rare model nationally, said Ben Strick, the senior director of adult behavioral health at Spurwink, a nonprofit contracted by state Department of Health and Human Services.

Crisis centers, Strick said, typically fall into one of two models: clinical, often attached to an emergency room, or peer living room, which relies primarily on peer counselors.

Maine’s version is a hybrid.


“A huge amount of the actual support is done by people with lived experience,” Strick said.

From 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week, the crisis center is always staffed by at least two certified peer support specialists, a nurse, a crisis service provider and another clinician. From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, the staff also includes a psychiatric nurse practitioner. Eventually, the center will be open 24 hours a day.

The hybrid model speaks to a dramatic shift in thinking about the value of peers. Strick said he was a skeptic once, until he actually saw one at work in a meeting years ago. He watched as that person became a translator of sorts who could bridge the communication between a parent and a school official, defusing the tension in the room by helping everyone understand one another better.

“I thought that it was just going to be somebody who got in the way, somebody who didn’t have the skills or training to help in these situations,” Strick said. “It was a very narcissistic way of thinking about it. … It’s just the absolute wrong way to think about it.”

A room off the common area at Spurwink’s new crisis center on Elm Street in Portland, where peer support specialists and clinical workers can talk to people in private or guests can just rest by themselves for a little while. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Since then, Strick said he has advocated for more peer support specialists to be integrated into Spurwink’s services. The crisis center employs more peers than any other program at the nonprofit, and case managers and peer support specialists have the same pay scale to show equal value for their work.

“We know that historically there is bias against people who have had some sort of severe mental illness or substance use disorder, and we have been trying to make sure our workplaces are accepting of these individuals,” said Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. “That includes our own workplaces. That includes us, as well as our providers and services in behavioral health.”


Spurwink is contracted by the Department of Health and Human Services to run the center, and the $2.4 million operating budget comes from state and federal funds. The center can bill insurance companies for crisis care, but no one will be turned away for lack of insurance or inability to pay. Strick said the intent is that no guest will ever get a bill for services received there.

People can come in for a conversation with a peer or a clinician or both. They can decompress in a quiet room. They can get a crisis assessment or not. They can get a referral for more long-term care. In limited cases, they can get help accessing medication. They can just get a bowl of mac and cheese.

These are some of the people who might welcome you when you walk in the door.


Not long ago, Lisa Sims was waking up at the homeless shelter in Portland. She hated the early morning calls that told her she had 45 minutes, then 30 minutes, then 15 minutes to get out the door.

“I used to hate waking up, and I used to be mad that I was alive still,” Sims said. “Now I have a bed to sleep in and my own place with an amazing job with support that I have never had in my life, and I’m grateful to be alive, and I don’t want to die anymore.”


Sims spent years in a cycle of hospitalization and homelessness. She bounced between psychiatric wards and detox beds and the street. Last spring, she got into a recovery house with the financial help of the Portland Housing Authority and finally had a chance at stability. Now she has her own place and a cat named Oscar. Key to her experience was a peer support specialist at Greater Portland Health.

Lisa Sims, a peer support specialist at Spurwink’s new crisis center on Elm Street in Portland, spent years in a cycle of hospitalizations and homelessness. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“I would go in and talk to her for an hour a week,” Sims said. “She was easy to talk to, and she was not judgmental. She had gone through some of the same things I had gone through. She’s the reason why I’m doing what I’m doing now.”

Sims became a certified peer support specialist and eventually came to work at the crisis center when it opened in February. She worried about whether she should return to the Bayside community where she had struggled for so many years, but she found the memories on that block to be reminders of her own strength. She also found the most supportive workplace of her life. When she marked a year of recovery in April, her co-workers greeted her with balloons and Rice Krispie treats and flowers.

“It was a big day for me, and they made it known that they respected it,” she said. “They wanted to celebrate me too.”

She often says that she wishes the crisis center existed when she was on the street. She knows what it’s like to go to the emergency room for a mental health crisis, to have her few possessions taken away and to be dressed in a paper gown, to feel trapped there. She sees the crisis center as an alternative free from stigma and suffocation.

“The biggest thing for me is when somebody comes in, making them not feel like they’re invisible, looking them in their eyes, smiling, saying, ‘How are you?’” Sims said.


This spring, Sims did just that with a woman who came into the crisis center from a local shelter. They started working together on the forms she needed to get more permanent housing, chipping away at bureaucratic tasks and taking breaks as needed. Sims knew from her own experience how overwhelming it is to get through a pile of paperwork when you’re just trying to get your basic needs met. In April, the woman moved into a recovery home in Portland.

“All of the things that were my struggles and the things that might prevent me from getting a job somewhere else, it’s my resume,” Sims said.


Gabriel Carter Jr. felt like he was doing peer support work before he got certified to do it.

He felt it as a mental health worker at a treatment facility in California, when he was fighting his own addictions and saw himself in the people who were hospitalized there. He felt it as a manager of a convenience store in Maine, when he chatted with customers about their lives and their problems.

“It’s just being kind and available and having conversations and being able to relate,” he said.


Carter grew up in a desert city in Southern California, and his adult life was often disrupted by drinking and substance use. Those behaviors derailed a collegiate wrestling career, a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps and the job he loved at the treatment facility. He tried to make a change by moving across the country to Maine, where he worked first in security on the pier at Old Orchard Beach and then at the convenience store. But he still struggled with his addictions. Eventually he decided he wanted to be done with spending nights in jail and losing jobs and starting over again and again.

“I asked for help, and I meant it,” he said.

In 2014, Carter moved into a shelter in Alfred and then into a substance use treatment center in Portland. He found that a key part of his own recovery was helping others. Since 2016, he has been involved in running sober houses with a friend. That year, he also started working as a peer support specialist, one of the first in the adult services at Spurwink. Now, he oversees the peers at the crisis center and in other programs. He likes running into people who’ve visited the crisis center, and being in their lives as a neighbor.

“I’d love to see you at the freaking farmers’ market sometime in the summer after you came in here and told me about the trauma inflicted on you as a child, right?” he said. “You just need an ear and an opportunity to get it off your chest occasionally.”

He laughs when he thinks about the motorcycle he told himself he’d be riding one day. Instead, he bought a Dodge Caravan that is better suited for outreach or pickup at the food pantry (and his dog Gracie).

“I used to sit around high and drunk and think about how I wanted my life to be nice,” he said. “But I had to stop doing that stuff and help others in order for that to change.”



Matt Brown worked as a federal probation officer for 25 years, and when he started as a peer support specialist at the center, he wondered whether he would see anyone he’d supervised in that role. He is retired from law enforcement now, but he worried that someone who’d been on probation might feel uncomfortable to see him when walking in to get help. But when it finally happened, the connection was positive. The person remembered him as a supporter during a stressful time, and Brown got to offer support again in the form of laundry help at the crisis center.

Brown now works not only doing peer support at the center but also as a certified drug and alcohol counselor at a Portland shelter and an attendant at a funeral home. In past and present careers, he has always been open about his own journey with alcoholism.

Peer support specialist Matt Brown used to be a probation officer. He is open about his own journey with alcoholism, but says you have to know when to share. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“Once I was comfortable sharing with people as their probation officer that I was in recovery, it changed those relationships for the better,” Brown said. “Once you realize you can utilize that experience to benefit other people, once you’re able to find some purpose in it, it changed the way I looked at the disease. It wasn’t a curse. It was a blessing I can use to help people.”

This June will mark 20 years of recovery for Brown.

“I’m not sure I would be alive if it wasn’t for others, men particularly, in recovery that were willing to share their experiences with me and give me their time unselfishly,” he said.

He has also learned how and when to share his own experiences. Once, at his job at the shelter, he was talking to a man who had lost someone close. Brown said, “I know exactly what you mean,” and the man slammed his fist in frustration on the table between them.

“That was a huge lesson for me to not make assumptions, despite the fact that I have been to very dark places, I’ve been hopeless, I’ve been an active alcoholic,” Brown said. “That doesn’t mean I understand what your experience is when you are hopeless. … It’s more important that we know what it feels like to be in those spots ourselves, so we have a certain empathy.”

And sometimes that means just sticking an extra Pop Tart in someone’s pocket, making someone laugh with his handwritten business card, or proving his M.M.C credentials by handing someone a warm bowl of mac and cheese.

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