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A Tropical Home for the Homeless

Society: The number of street people in San Juan, Puerto Rico, has risen from 1,000 to 6,000 in two years. Social services are cited.

June 23, 2002|KATY DAIGLE | Associated Press

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — They sprawl beside the jewelry shops and posh boutiques along San Juan's cobblestoned streets, ragged and dirty men and women with hands outstretched, begging for money and food.

In just two years, the homeless population of San Juan has risen from about 1,000 to more than 6,000.

More than three-quarters come from the U.S. mainland or elsewhere in this American Caribbean territory, seeking work or help from homeless programs. They come--and stay--for a reason.

"I've got a pretty good life, for a bum," says Joseph Norwood, 52, who sleeps under the stars in the balmy climate and earns up to $50 a day weaving palm fronds into the forms of grasshoppers and roses for passing tourists.

Norwood came from San Diego to escape police warrants for petty crimes. He first tried to live on other islands in the Caribbean, but found them too expensive or too poor.

San Juan gave him a welfare net that offered treatment when he developed arthritis in his spine several years ago. City programs helped him kick his drinking habit. Tourists provide his bread and butter.

Such people have always come because "the quality of life for the homeless is better," says Orlando Gotay, an official at the mayor's office.

San Juan, which boasts a restored colonial city, Spanish forts and designer outlet shops, is the only Puerto Rican city with thousands of tourists and outreach programs offering meals, beds, drug rehabilitation and counseling.

It's also a major drug-trafficking port. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration estimates that 30% of South American heroin and cocaine bound for the mainland ends up staying in Puerto Rico, with a lot going to the street people.

"I've slept in toilets, been in and out of the hospital .... Still, I kept up with the crack and the speedballs," says Virginia Fernandes Rios, 52, who came here 10 years ago with her family from New York City. Her marriage later collapsed and her children cut off contact and moved away.

Fernandes Rios is sober now, after the city sponsored her rehabilitation. But she is still on the streets. "My dream is to have my own home again," she says.

The city program for the homeless has a budget of $5 million, which is up 300% from last year but is barely enough to deal with the problem, says its director, Maria Luisa Rivera.

"It's a bandage over a wound that just gets bigger," Rivera says. "The more work we do, the more homelessness we find."

The program provides overnight shelter for 152 people. It also pays for about 1,950 people in drug rehabilitation and more than 800 in psychological counseling.

There also are dozens of private groups and church refuges, but many people live on the streets. Next to the tourists off the cruise ships, they look shipwrecked--wild-eyed and loose-jointed.

Many shop owners worry that the upsurge in the numbers of homeless is threatening an already fragile souvenir trade.

"It's a real nuisance. They steal from the shop and scare away the customers. The drug addicts, the open sores and the dirt--you know, tourists are uncomfortable when they see it," says Guillermo Rodriguez, owner of an art gallery, La Galeria de la Calle Cristo.

Not all in the tourism business are as concerned.

"It is an eyesore. But many people don't find the shelters an acceptable alternative," says Erin Benitez, executive vice president of the Puerto Rico Hotel and Tourism Assn. "Fortunately, we don't have the hassle factor of people being pushy."

Carmen Rivera, 93, holds her leathery hand open in her lap, in passive supplication. Partially blind and lame, she says she has lived on the streets for 15 years. She has no family and has fallen through the social safety net.

"It is OK here," she says, smiling as she waits for a donation. "It's warm, and people take care of me."

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