Melissa Hernandez first started noticing the Puerto Rican addicts in 2015. There were hundreds of them, hanging around Chicago's traditionally Mexican neighborhoods. She started talking to them, and many said that Puerto Rican government officials had encouraged them to buy one-way tickets to Chicago, promising drug treatment, housing, and jobs when they arrived. But when they landed at the airport, no one was waiting for them. Many ended up living on the streets.
"It seemed unbelievable," Hernandez told me. "But I thought, Holy moly, this is where I belong."
Now Hernandez, founder of the nonprofit Puerto Rico Project, drives around the city twice a week after her day job as a dental hygienist, distributing dinner and supplies to the city's Puerto Rican addicts—clothes, clean syringes, and Narcan, an opioid blocker that can be used to immediately reverse a heroin overdose. She estimates there are more than 100 users in the circuit she serves; sometimes, she spends as long as five hours making the rounds.
For the past decade, Puerto Rican officials have sent nearly 800 heroin users to the mainland United States as part of a questionable response to an overwhelming drug problem occurring on the commonwealth, with at least 120 of them landing in Chicago.
Many of these people arrive with poor English ability and end up in unlicensed rehabilitation facilities. Many of these facilities have no credentials to treat addiction, and stories of theft and violence are common, as This American Life reported last year.
The Puerto Rican government knows users don't end up in professional rehabilitation centers. The Administration of Mental Health and Addiction Services of Puerto Rico, which did not respond to interview requests, issued a press release in 2014 explaining that "given the lack of treatment options Puerto Rico faces, some people, families, or entities have opted to transfer people with substance abuse disorders to organizations located in[…] the United States, without getting the information about the qualifications of such centers. There is scientific and journalistic evidence about people who have been admitted into residencies without any facilities or adequate services thus having to leave the services without being able to recover their documents (driver's license, Social Security cards, voter registration, Medicaid, etc.)."
Hernandez told me there aren't enough Spanish-language recovery homes in Chicago, aside from the unaccredited groups. Left without options, many users end up homeless. Hernandez eventually plans to turn the Puerto Rico Project into a halfway house for addicted Latinos.
Hernandez funds the Puerto Rico Project primarily by herself, in part because of her personal history with addiction. She grew up in Humboldt Park, Chicago's largely Puerto Rican neighborhood, and joined the Latin Queens gang when she was 14. By the time she was 16, she'd started using heroin.
"I didn't really care whether I lived or died," she told me, "so I guess I enjoyed putting my life at risk."
She started the process of getting sober at 19, after a bout of homelessness and two arrests for drug possession.
"I was tired of being sick, I was tired of being bedridden and not being able to function," she told me. "I wanted to maintain employment and go back to school, I just didn't know how."
Now, she tries to help other users, like 24-year-old Christian (who declined to provide his full name). Christian told me he was sent to Chicago in 2008 by government officials from the Juncos region of Puerto Rico, who promised him help for his marijuana addiction. From 2007 to 2013, this province sent 259 drug users to cities in the mainland US, and 56 of them were referred to Chicago.
Christian says that, when he arrived in Chicago's O'Hare Airport, a man drove him to an unlicensed rehabilitation group on the city's West Side. Christian lived there for the next two years, during which time he got sober but also says he suffered physical abuse.
At 22, Christian left the facility, ready to give living clean in Chicago a shot. But after two months, he tried heroin and became addicted. Rather than returning to rehab, Christian has spent the last two years living on the streets.
Hernandez says Christian is one of the luckier ones. His English is good, and she thinks she could get him enrolled in a professional treatment program in Chicago, since English-language facilities often have more vacancies than Spanish-language ones.
But Christian told Hernandez he wants to go back to Puerto Rico, so he can get clean with the support of friends and family.
"Something inside me tells me, 'You're never going to be able to change here.'"