Abandonment, drugs, exploitation, or how young people survive on the street

On 2,500 people do not sleep on a bed or under a roof in Puerto Rico, but where catch night. The question is: How many of them are young? The Department of Family identified 85. Organizations working directly with the population estimate that there are more than 300. Can be one. They can be a thousand. For now we know about Christian and how his case is a fairly complete profile of the young people who roam.

By:Víctor Rodríguez-Velázquez • 19 November 2019

The least of the four

For Christian Rivera Robles the most difficult thing to live on the street is to get food,

go cold in the early morning,

find where to bathe 0

keep your belongings or

get clothes.

But the most that affects him are the looks.

"You bastard. Enter the sites and people look at you bad because you are on the street. It is unfair", said.

It takes "like five" years of his 24 wandering in Caguas. There he sleeps in the public car terminal with three other homeless people. He is the youngest of the quartet.

He is also one of the hundreds of young people among 18 and the 24 years they spend their days on some sidewalk or corner or under any bridge. They are hundreds, although the Family Department only identified 85 youth in January the 2019. They are hundreds, because organizations that work with this population, like the Coalition of Coalitions and Matria, they assure that the number of the Department of the Family is not real.

The history, first part

Sitting in a Chinese food restaurant near the terminal, Christian explained three things: how he was left homeless, why he doesn't believe in government and how he survives on the street. His story is this:

From three months he was under the tutelage of the Family Department. Although in adolescence he met his biological mother, never had a relationship with her. He went through more than 60 substitute homes. Since the 15 years he experimented with “the street”. To the 21 years he moved into a home of his own, but could not offset the costs of a roof of its own.

"I fulfilled 21 years and they [the Department] they dispatched me. They fail the minors. They put them in a home and they don't care about anything else. One is three years in a home and the agency will visit us once or twice.. They don't know if they hit us badly or something. They never listened to me when I told them about my mistreatment ”, remembered.

Finished high school. He started studying culinary arts at MBTI College in Santurce, but the institution went bankrupt without him finishing his curriculum. Since then he has not studied again. In January it will look for "options".

"I don't want to live my whole life on the street. I want to have my house. I'm doing paperwork to get an apartment through SANOS ”, mentioned.

Refers to the Health Insured corporation by Our Solidarity Organization (Healthy), attached to the Municipality of Caguas and which provides health services to the population participating in the government health plan.

The doubt with the numbers

For Francisco Rodríguez Fraticelli, Christian's story is one more –and not for that less tragic–.

As executive director of Coalition of Coalitions, entity that since 2003 is dedicated to coordinating housing projects and services for homeless people in 54 peoples of Puerto Rico, knows that one of the reasons why young people are forced to live on the street is that: grow up in foster homes.

The data is confirmed in the Homeless people count 2019 made by the Department of the Family in the 78 municipalities: One in every four (26%) of the 38 young people interviewed –of the 85 identified by the agency - was under the guardianship of the State before wandering.

Glorimar Andújar Matos, Family secretary, defended the agency's work to avoid this type of situation. He added that there are transition programs for young people under the tutelage of the State.

"Through the Independent Living Service program, since the 14 years young people are monitored by our staff. They are not only guided in their studies: they are also given training to manage their budget and to be able to live alone ”, exposed.

The Homeless people count takes place every two years and is a requirement of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD, in English) to identify the needs of homeless people and, So, define the services to be provided.

But the problem is just that: which is a count and not a census. Rodríguez Fraticelli added that the study does not delve into the reasons why young people end up on the street, beyond the category "drug addiction".

In the document, the Department of the Family identified 2,535 homeless. A 38% cited drug use or abuse as a reason. A 64% reported still drinking alcohol, drugs or over-the-counter medications.

"When the government counts homeless people, it focuses on the current circumstances and only targets drug addiction problems, when substance use often comes after being on the street, as an outlet to manage that new reality ”, Rodríguez Fraticelli pointed out.

The history, second part

Christian smokes synthetic marijuana to be calmer and "escape" from what he lives.

"It honestly doesn't help me at all, but it makes me clear my mind of problems and things that happen on the street. Sometimes I spend the whole day smoking ”, let go.

But accept that it is not the only thing you have consumed. "On the street you find everything you can imagine. I've tried acid, mushrooms, ecstasy…", ready.

The numbers with less doubts

Rodríguez Fraticelli's hypothesis is that there 300 young people on the island who do not have a home - four times the number of 85 reported by the Department of the Family–.

Will try to test it in January 2020, When the Coalition of Coalitions and the SEXTeam of the Medical Sciences Campus of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) come together to learn about and analyze the status of the homeless youth population in the country.

That number, Indian, calculated it from the database of the Information and Management System for Homeless People (HMIS, in English), that HUD uses to collect information on public housing applications from individuals or families who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

"That other database says how many young people among 18 Y 24 years are receiving housing location services. That number –300– is the result of reports from all public and private agencies that have touched base with these people seeking social assistance services ”, Rodríguez Fraticelli explained.

Because you already know the causes: in the case of young people, unemployment or financial problems and family rejection for being LGBT + are frequent. None of these reasons is analyzed in the Count from the Family Department.

Andújar Matos reaffirmed that the study is governed by the definitions and guidelines established by HUD. He clarified that any inclusion of other variables that allow knowing the profile of homeless youth must be done jointly with the federal agency.

Exposure to trafficking

Rodríguez Fraticelli considers that there is another variable that must be accounted for: exposure to being victims of human trafficking through labor or sexual exploitation for not having a home.

A decade ago, the sociologist César Rey Hernández studied this phenomenon in Puerto Rico. During this period, he has published three studies on the manifestations of human trafficking on the island and has interviewed on 350 youth among 17 and the 22 years.

César Rey Hernández, sociologist and professor at the School of Public Administration of the Río Piedras Campus of the University of Puerto Rico. (uprrp.edu)

Everybody, stressed Rey Hernández, reported having been trafficked at some point for living or interacting on the street.

The academic stated that in the 85% of drug points in Puerto Rico work less than, In most cases, they end up living on the street when they meet 18 years.

"There is an appeal in this drug trafficking market for young people, and more for those who are wandering. They end up like this because they were expelled from their families for their sexual orientation, or for being addicted to drugs, or because the mother is in jail or because they simply understood that the street represented a better alternative than a dysfunctional home ”, prepared by the professor of public administration at the UPR.

Lack of job opportunities for youth is a source of the problem, pointed out the expert. The Youth Development Institute revealed in October that a 17% of young Puerto Ricans between 16 Y 20 years are not enrolled in the education system and do not have a job.

Unable to stand on their own, Rey Hernández concluded, these young people end up on the streets, using drugs and, in many instances, forced into sex work or drug trafficking.

"Young people are likely to be victims of exploitation through manipulation. Trafficking thrives on that vulnerability and deceit. I have no doubt that of that statistic of young people living on the street - which we do not yet have accurate - one percent end up being the victim of that crime ”, analyzed.

The history, third part

Christian turned to sex work. He clarified that he did it out of necessity, to generate an income, but not because someone forced it. The rate starts at $60.

"I have been working in prostitution for almost nine years. There are clients, almost always men ”, noticed.

It does so from 15.

The problem of lack of coordination

Senator José Vargas Vidot believes that if the provision of public services to the homeless were carried out in a coordinated manner by the agencies involved, could have a better x-ray of that population.

That is why Vargas Vidot - who before being elected was heading the Community Initiative, Another of the organizations that serves this sector - presented in August the Senate bill 1342. If approved, the Plan to Approach the Sinhogarism PhenomenonO. It was approved in the Senate. Now in public hearing in the House of Representatives.

The proposed legislation summarizes how this social problem has been treated in the Legislative Assembly. At 1998 The Commission for the Implementation of Public Policy Relative to Homeless People was created. This was removed in the 2007, when the Multisectoral Council in Support of the Homeless Population was created in its alternative, attached to the Department of the Family.

Today, the council is the government entity in charge of implementing public policy related to homelessness. It also corresponds to coordinate with other agencies and the private sector to meet the needs of this demographic.

But in the 2009 HUD redefined the "characteristics" of what "defined" a homeless person, what caused that in 2016 the Legislature will transfer that dependency to the Administration of Mental Health and Addiction Services (Assmca).

With the amendments to the federal law, the eligibility criteria that these individuals would have to meet to receive federal assistance were modified.. This is "an example of how local public policy is amended based on criteria from other realities", Vargas Vidot held in the measure.

Before that mismatch, Senate bill 1342 proposes creating a public corporation that is responsible for distributing and overseeing all funds received by government agencies - not organizations - to work with the homeless population. The measure would repeal the council and its functions would pass to this new entity.

"There is a need to standardize interventions with these people, to set country goals, appraisal metrics, monitoring and fiscal management. That some other organization resents it because, although they do not touch the money they receive, they have tried to say yes. The corporation only touches the money that is assigned to the agencies ”, raised the legislator.

Although it has reservations with the bill, Rodríguez Fraticelli agreed that the country needs strategies that, on the one hand, impact the largest number of homeless people, but on the other, recognize the needs of each one - needs that vary from case to case -.

The social leader regretted that the process around the Senate bill 1342 “It has not been transparent nor has it taken into consideration the people who have spent years working with the homeless”, matter that, wait, change when the measure is discussed in the House of Representatives.

Vargas Vidot rejected the approach and defended the space that has been given, and what do you hope to give, to these organizations.

"We had a year of public hearings through community tables. The project was done with the input of those tables. Although in that year they were always invited, [Coalitions Coalition] He never came. We respect their work to such a level that the piece does not touch the federal funds they receive. ”, stressed the legislator.

The problem of discrimination

Even though HUD has regulations that prohibit any entity that receives federal funds from discriminating against LGBT + people who seek assistance in obtaining housing, there are those who break them.

That was one of the findings of the public health Luis Arroyo Andújar in a study, still to publish, presented in July of this year as part of his master's degree in public health at the UPR Campus of Medical Sciences.

The objective was to investigate whether the access policies of each organization were in sync with the Equal Access in Accordance with an Individual’s Gender Identity in Community Planning and Development Programs Rule what HUD demands. Discrimination complicates access to young people living on the street, especially for those who are expelled by their family due to their sexual orientation or gender identity, Arroyo Andújar recalled.

Federal regulation states that “all housing programs that are recipients and sub-recipients of HUD funding must allow access for individuals and families, regardless of your sexual orientation, gender identity and / or marital status ”.

Arroyo Andújar interviewed six of the 42 local entities that receive funds from the federal agency to provide housing services. Of those, two subscribe to some religion or Christian denomination.

The public health worker found that, even though HUD requires compliance with Equal Access Rule, most participants are covered by another law that does not necessarily protect LGBT + people: he Fair Housing Act. This regulation provides similar to that of HUD, only that sexual orientation and gender identity are not included in the list of prohibited forms., which opens the window to that, indeed, the LGBT + subpopulation of the mobile population does not receive federal aid to obtain housing.

Arroyo Andújar also found that entities lack protocols to handle situations of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

For the public health worker, organizations don't purposely fall for these failures, but through ignorance. "They take refuge in that they do not discriminate. However, there are some rules that are more specific, to avoid any kind of discrimination, and they were leaving them out ", pointed out.

The history, fourth part

Christian does not trust religious organizations that work with the homeless.

He does not say it because he is part of the LGBT + community. He says it because they don't have the tools to “deal with the street people without judging them”. With what he has lived it is enough to affirm it.

"I've been lurching around Caguas for years and I don't stop at any [organization] to bathe or eat. They are too long. They speak what they shouldn't, of what does not concern him. To go to a place where they will disrespect me, I better stay asleep in the public car terminal ”, manifested.