New York State Launches 24-Hour Hotline for People Using Drugs Alone

December 10, 2020

New Yorkers who are using drugs alone, and who would like someone to stay on the phone with them and call emergency services if they become unresponsive, can now call the state’s new Never Use Alone hotline at 1-800-997-2280. The line operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The New York hotline is a collaboration between Truth Pharm, a Binghamton-based harm reduction nonprofit, and the national Never Use Alone hotline. The operators are all volunteers, although anyone who’s also a Certified Recovery Peer Advocates can have their hours volunteered for the hotline count toward their required CRPA service hours. So far, 25 volunteers across New York State have been trained to take calls and another 20 have signed up.

“Our message before COVID has always been ‘never use alone,’ but with COVID it’s not a practical message anymore. It’s a conflicting message! We’re telling people to stay home and be isolated, and then we’re saying ‘don’t use alone,’” Truth Pharm Executive Director Alexis Pleus told Filter. “The timeline feels really perfect, when we’re going into a winter again with a lot of isolation and people being forced to use alone.”

Stephen Murray, a recent addition to Truth Pharm’s board and the man responsible for launching Never Use Alone hotlines in Vermont and Massachusetts earlier this year, said the national hotline was struggling to keep up with calls due to a finite number of operators available, resulting in the current push to make hotlines more locally based. “And they were finding that the connection time for getting EMS activated when you’re not calling 911 from within the same state was delayed,” Murray told Filter.

Operators can chat with the callers as much or as little as the caller is up for, but their primary function is to check in every two to three minutes to make sure they’re still responsive and contact the caller’s local emergency services number if they are not. The New York line had not received any calls by publication time, but—as with hotlines launched in other states—it will likely take several weeks for word of the new service to spread.

“We were taught as operators to stay on the line as lone as the person wants us there. When the person feels safe, we can end the call.”

“One complication with the line, compared with Massachusetts and Vermont, is in New York we’re such a big state that if I’m taking a call [in Binghamton] and talking to a person in New York City or Buffalo and they need assistance, you gotta be a bit tech savvy,” Pleus said. “Because if you call 911, it’s calling your local 911.” Operators will have to either look up the caller’s local number from another electronic device or from their phone without disconnecting the call. However, if all else fails and the operator can’t find the emergency services number, they’ll simply call 911 and be connected to the caller’s local EMS from there.

“I pronounce dozens and dozens [dead] from fatal overdose, and thing that they all have in common is that they were all using alone,” Murray, who works primarily as a paramedic, told Filter. “I feel like it’s really important to continue to get that message out to people, that using alone is dangerous. We are one of several options to help try and keep you safe. But for people to just hear the phrase ‘never use alone’ as a reminder that it is dangerous, I see that as being actually sometimes the main benefit of our services in the first place.”

Pleus added that whether or not operators establish a rapport with callers, the grounding in harm reduction means there will be no judgment and no pushing for callers to enter treatment. “It’s just, ‘I’m here to hang out with you til you’re done doing your business and make sure you’re still alive and sitting upright when you’re done.’ We were taught as operators to stay on the line as lone as the person wants us there. When the person feels safe, we can end the call.”



Photo via Pixabay

Kastalia Medrano

Kastalia is Filter's deputy editor. She previously worked at a number of other media outlets and wouldn’t recommend the drug coverage at any of them. When not at Filter, she works with drug users in NYC and drug checkers in North Carolina to track hyperlocal supply changes, and cohosts a national stimulant users call with Isaac Jackson.

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