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Portland Press Herald: In Biddeford, a new Community Engagement specialist helps connect people with housing, food, counseling

By March 4, 2021March 24th, 2021News

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In Biddeford, a new Community Engagement specialist helps connect people with housing, food, counseling

Jake Hammer assists those who have been in crisis, have substance use issues, are homeless, or in other difficult circumstances.

BIDDEFORD — Biddeford’s relatively new Community Engagement specialist gets around.

Sometimes, he’s at Seeds of Hope Neighborhood Center, connecting with people there. Other times, Jake Hammer is checking to see that someone who had a crisis situation is doing better. He may be on the phone with a plethora of social service providers, looking to connect people with counseling or housing or other services they need. Earlier this year, he was helping to sort the mountain of winter coats — about 1,100 — the Biddeford Police Department collected to provide to those in need.

Community Engagement Specialist Jake Hammer works with people who have problems in their lives – from mental health difficulties to homelessness,  among other matters, to help secure resources to improve their lives. Biddeford Police Department established the position last fall. Tammy Wells Photo




Hammer, 28, has been Biddeford’s Community Engagement specialist since Dec. 1. Attached to Biddeford Police Department, he is employed by Spurwink, which has contracted with the city for the position.

When he saw the posting for the job, “I jumped on it,” Hammer said.

Primarily, his task is to connect people with services — finding out what they need and then getting in touch with those who can help.

The position is new, approved by the Biddeford City Council last fall. Police Chief Roger Beaupre in October told the City Council that officers responding to complaints on the street frequently encounter people with mental illness, substance use, homelessness and other issues.

“It’s not a crime to be homeless,” said Beaupre, adding that often, people in that situation are not getting services to aid them. “We’re hoping to bridge that gap.”

Hammer is helping  build the bridge.

An Ohio National Guard veteran, Hammer put his degree in psychology to use when he arrived in Maine from his home state four years ago, working with developmentally and intellectually disabled adults in a day program.

He came to Maine looking to be closer to the ocean, and has lived in Biddeford since he arrived.

As a Community Engagement specialist, Hammer’s tasks often entail finding care for those with mental health issues, and help for other matters, ranging from housing, to counseling, rent relief, heating oil, food resources, or “whatever the need is,” he said.

“I wanted to impact the community,” said Hammer.

Beaupre said he is.

“This guy (is) very impressive,” the police chief said in a recent telephone interview. “(Spurwink) gave us the perfect person for this position. His demeanor, his fast charging pace of jumping right into the fray of getting things done has been amazing.”

Beaupre said the police department receives many calls with people in mental health crises. Now, he said, once the immediate crisis is dealt with, Hammer steps in to coordinate services.

“I reach out to the person and see what’s going on, and build a plan with the person for supports,” Hammer said.

Eventually, as the program continues, he could be accompanying police as they respond to crisis situations.

Recognizing that not everyone is comfortable at the police station, Hammer said he’ll arrange meetings at Seeds of Hope or similar venues — or in the city’s parks if the weather is nice. 

Recently, Hammer worked with Biddeford Housing Authority to locate homes for a couple of families in difficult circumstances, which resulted in stable, permanent housing – a result that brought him a great deal of job satisfaction.

The community supports like BHA, United Way, York County Community Action Corporation and a host of others make a difference; Hammer said he couldn’t do his job without them.

He and the service providers are working on a new program that helps address supports for housing, youth and refugees that is expected to be rolled out later in the year, he said.

A program similar to the Community Engagement model was in place in the city in 1998, Beaupre told the City Council last fall, but it ended due to lack of funding. The earlier program made a difference, Beaupre said.

“We were happy with the outcome back then and could see the benefit to aid officers in dealing with special situations and people in mental crisis,” he said.

Biddeford Police Department will pay 50 percent of the first-year cost of the two- year contract between the city and Spurwink — about $32,000 — using a training reimbursement from another municipality, and will work with Spurwink to secure grant funding for the remaining 50 percent of the first year, with that agency absorbing the cost if that is unsuccessful, the police chief explained to the City Council last fall. Biddeford Police Department is responsible for the second-year costs, and while the funds are currently built in to the 2022 fiscal year budget, Beaupre on Thursday said he is hopeful grant funding will be forthcoming.

As for Hammer, “I’m loving it,” he said of his new gig. “Getting basic needs met is the key to all of it.”

He can be reached at Biddeford Police Department, at 282-5127.