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How to Become Homeless: Be a Puerto Rican Addict

Winter on My Street“Como Se Dice ‘Not It’?” is a prime example of why the public radio series This American Life is famous. A chance meeting with a street person led Chicago newspaper editor Adriana Cardona to uncover an astonishing story that leaves numerous questions to be considered before rendering judgment. Cardona’s approach to the story is beautifully even-handed, and we hope that our summation of the basic points will inspire the reader to go for the full experience and listen to the episode.

Through her casual conversation with a homeless man, the editor learned that heroin addicts are regularly shipped from Puerto Rico to Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and cities in New Jersey, Florida, South Carolina, and Wisconsin. In each destination they are taken to places that on-air host Ira Glass describes as “flop houses open 24 hours a day with group therapy going till late at night, sometimes 10 or 13 hours straight.”

Cardona found 14 branches of this rehab outfit in Chicago alone, and became most familiar with a branch called Segunda Vida (Second Life). Other facilities have such names as El Grito Desesperado (The Desperate Scream) and El Ultimo Paso (The Last Step). They all operate under the auspices of the Puerto Rican organization De Vuelta a la Vida (Return to Life). In the United States, the organization flies under the banner of Alcoholics Anonymous, but AA disowns them, and indeed their methods are unorthodox. Glass says:

The therapy was really just basically like AA meetings led by former addicts who did very un-AA things like yell at them and berate them. When the guys would go through detox, because there was no medicine or methadone or professional staff, they were sometimes given folk remedies, like an onion to bite on, or alcohol would be poured in their belly buttons.

When Cardona showed up at Segunda Vida, she encountered tough men, allergic to microphones and cameras, who claimed there was nobody in charge and therefore nobody she could speak with. The gatekeepers handled all requests from anyone, about anything, with a recommendation to “come back in a few days.” Her persistence finally won a meeting with one of the group’s founders. Efren Moreno confirmed every negative thing that Cardona had heard about the organization, but he did not seem exploitative or evil. Her impression was of…

… someone who wanted to be part of the solution, that he wanted to bring services to those who were not able to get rehab services out there… But at the same time—and he even said—each group has its own rules. And because there is no oversight, it’s really hard to know what are those other groups doing.

In a Chicago facility, an addict gets free room and board for three months, and then is charged $50 to $75 a week, which still includes meals. At some branches, residents are encouraged to sign up for food stamps and contribute their allotments to the kitchen that feeds everybody. This bit of mandatory socialism, while probably not legal, is far from outrageous. Moreno would prefer to get by with no government assistance at all. A recovering addict himself, he claims to really help junkies kick their habits, and says anyone who quits the program is a weak individual who didn’t really want to get better. Apparently that is a large category, because one of Cardona’s co-researchers found, in Chicago alone, 93 men who had quit the program.

Addicts Off the Grid

When Cardona visited Puerto Rico, she was met with astonishment that anyone should question or doubt this successful narcotics rehabilitation program. De Vuelta a la Vida is no secret to municipal authorities or to Puerto Rico’s governor. Glass says:

It’s run by the state police. They help drug addicts get food, clothing, hygiene, and other services on the island. But also, they arrange for lots of them to fly off the island to these unlicensed programs in the United States.

Of course, none of the Puerto Rican bureaucrats knew that the rehab centers are unlicensed. In every place where De Vuelta a la Vida has established outposts, they seem to operate totally under the radar. According to any city records or public health department or professional registration bureau or licensing agency, officially they don’t exist.

What Does De Vuelta a la Vida Have to Do With Homelessness?

Puerto Rican addicts are recruited dishonestly, lured by a fantasy of gleaming premises, plenty of doctors and nurses, and even a swimming pool. In return for a one-way ticket to a mythical luxury rehab center, they sign a waiver that absolves the Puerto Rican government of any further responsibility for them. If they ever want to return, they have to figure it out for themselves. When the men arrive stateside, they lose what little benefits were available in their homeland, including HIV meds and methadone.

Even a successfully cleaned-up Puerto Rican immigrant is unlikely to find work, and will probably end up on the street or, at best, in a shelter. For those who quit the program, life is grim. Unable to speak the language, and still in need of opiates every day, they have to survive brutal winters in a place very unlike the tropical island of their birth.

For these penniless men, going home is an impossible dream. Family members have suffered already from abuse of their trust, and will ignore any plea for help, even with a fancy story about being stranded in America. Also, Segunda Vida and the other centers tend to hang onto identity documents, as Cardona learned by trying to help a newly-arrived HIV-positive addict who had quit the program almost immediately and lived, like so many others, in Chicago’s streets.

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Source: “Not It!,” ThisAmericanLife.org, 04/10/15
Image by BluEyedA73