It probably came as a surprise to many Philadelphians that their city has become a haven for heroin addicts from Puerto Rico who are desperate for help kicking their habit that they couldn't find on their destitute island. Not as surprising is how easy it is for those poor souls to become just as lost in the local drug culture.
That revelation was made by staff writer Alfred Lubrano in an article that detailed how Puerto Rican authorities, through a program euphemistically known as Air Bridge, have for years been giving hundreds of addicts one-way tickets to cities like New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, where they are supposed to become sober as residents of church-related recovery houses.
Puerto Rican officials say they send the mostly young men away because they don't have enough drug treatment facilities, and prospects for a recovered addict to get a job are better off the island.
It seems more likely that Puerto Rico is simply trying to reduce its addict population. The island is awash with illegal drugs as dealers elsewhere in the hemisphere exploit its status as a U.S. territory to smuggle narcotics into the states. A quantity of the addictive product, however, remains in Puerto Rico.
The Air Bridge addicts sent to Philadelphia typically end up in recovery houses near or in Kensington. Unfortunately, ground zero for the city's drug trade is exactly where they shouldn't be. Too often the strict regimen and rat-hole conditions of the unregulated recovery houses, where addicts are supposed to find salvation, instead spits them into the mean streets of the city, where they try to find a route to get high.
Breaking the cycle of drug dependency is hard, but it's worse when past experience is ignored. The recovery houses are not a new phenomenon. Puerto Rican addicts have been similarly left to fend for themselves in squalid recovery houses in Chicago and New York.
The Air Bridge concept appears to have been born in the late 1990s when a Bronx pastor, Julio Palmares, began his Ministerio Renovación Cristiana mission to cure addicts through prayer. Palmares, who died in 2012, required addicts living in his recovery house to sign up for cash assistance and food stamps, which were pooled into a common grocery fund. The poorly heated, vermin-infested house frequently failed fire inspections. And Palmares's ego-destroying rules too often pushed addicts into the ranks of the homeless.
The same thing happens to Puerto Rican addicts dropped in Philadelphia. Recovery house residents pay rent to live in hovels and must share food stamps and cash benefits with the household. Some recovery house operators are being paid stipends by drug treatment centers for referring customers with medical benefits.