ATLANTIC CITY — The people who approached the Hope One van one day in late March were from various backgrounds and on different steps along the path to recovery.
Some were new faces. Others were recognized instantly by the recovery specialists who staff the “mobile recovery unit.”
Not all were ready to stop drinking or using heroin.
“You’ll know when you’re ready, and when you’re ready, you have my number,” van coordinator Scott Gras said to someone who approached them but had doubts. “I’m not telling you — you don’t need to do anything. I’ve walked in your shoes, I’ve been where you’re at. … You know how to get a hold of us; you know where we’re at.”
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The work is personal for Gras and Doug Martin, a recovery specialist from AtlantiCare who rides along. Martin celebrated five years free from heroin this month; Gras celebrated six. Their conversations with those dealing with addiction are infused with their own experiences.
Connecting those looking to sober up with treatment centers with vacant beds is just one of the services provided by those aboard Hope One, championed by Atlantic County Sheriff Eric Scheffler and unveiled in August. They have referred more than 200 people to treatment, trained more than 150 people to use the overdose-reversal drug naloxone and provided 40 people with official IDs, necessary to get into treatment. They have snacks, water and toiletries, fentanyl test strips, single doses of naloxone and safe-use information for those not ready to quit. And mental health staffers, like Lindsay Dragon from Legacy Treatment Services, offer preliminary screenings for those suffering mental health crises and can connect those who need it to treatment.
“We’ve had people come back. When they’re first here, they smell of alcohol, they can barely stand up, and then they come back and they’re like, ‘Thank you,’” Dragon said. “And they’re dressed, they’re washed, they’re like, ‘Thank you. I’m starting a job next week.’ … It’s so rewarding.”
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A new vehicle the size of a tour bus is in the works for the team.
The current van leaves the Criminal Courts Complex in Mays Landing, its exterior adorned with the logos of the hospitals, nonprofits and treatment centers that contributed to the project. The van arrives at the bus terminal in Atlantic City on the last Tuesday of every month to line up with a Safe Surrender event held inside. The van travels to hot spots around the county, including the park adjacent to the library in Atlantic City. By 10 a.m. Tuesday, the van is parked behind the bus terminal at Atlantic and Ohio avenues and the specialists are huddled on the sidewalk, talking to anyone who approaches them, and handing out fliers with the next date and time they’ll be there.
The path to recovery is tenuous for many. Asked whether he found the specialists’ work helpful, one Mays Landing man who was connected with a treatment center in Williamstown replied, “I’m hoping so.”
Fewer than 10 people came by the van for their services that cold, blustery day. The volume of heroin users or people with mental health issues who stop by is “hit or miss,” Gras said.
“If I got one person into treatment today,” Gras said, “I did my job.”