San Juan outreach program supports local homeless community

A man sits alone on a closed restaurant’s patio at 11 p.m.

By Chris Schulz
Medill Reports

It’s just before 8 p.m. when we arrive at Iniciativa Comunitaria in the Rio Piedras neighborhood of San Juan.

Every Friday night, Iniciativa conducts Operación Compasión, a nighttime round to serve the local homeless population by providing food, coffee, juice, condoms, clothes, hygiene kits and needle exchange, among other things.

Each week a different member of the organization leads the outreach. Tonight the leader is Emanuel Rivera, a young public health professional, accompanied by his brother Kenneth. Emanuel is already a veteran of the rounds, but this is 17-year-old Kenneth’s first time volunteering. Ivan Figueroa, a local pharmacist who is helping set up but will not join us on the rounds, briefs us about what to expect and what to do while Emmanuel prepares the coffee and juice.

When we set out, it’s already past 10:30 p.m. On our first few stops we encounter individuals who are either unwilling or unable to talk very much with us but accepted our offerings. We stop for a while on a back street, but most of the people here aren’t very interested in talking either. It isn’t until we begin to approach the overpass that we get a chance to really have conversations.

Emmanuel prepares the coffee
Coffee is prepared, with copious amounts of sugar and cream, to be served to people offerings during the outreach. Participants are offered food, condoms, coffee, juice, needle exchange, and clothes, depending on availability.

A group of about six or seven sit under a well-lit overhang across from where we park. Almost immediately a man approaches us to exchange needles. We meet and he tells me his name is Javier. I watch him put his used needles in the plastic hazmat box, and give him the corresponding number of clean, unused needles back.

“Seis para seis” [Six for six] I say to him as I hand him the new needles. As we hand out coffees and food and condoms, Javier gestures to the group across the street.

“Él no puede caminar, pero tiene para cambiar.” [He can’t walk, but he wants to exchange.]  When he puts five more in the box, I hand him the same amount of clean needles back.

After a frenetic 10 minutes of handing out whatever is asked for, we prepare to leave but another call for “Café!” echoes across the street. Soon Emanuel has us all across the street, handing out socks and talking.

“Como lo han pasado?” [How have you been?] I ask. “Bueeeeno,” [Okay] comes the simultaneous reply from Alessandra and Joel, laughing at a joke I’m not a part of. “Estamos bien” [We’re OK] they assure me.

“Y que van a hacer mañana?” [What are you going to do tomorrow?] I ask them. This is advice from Ivan: always ask about the future, not  the past.

“Eso es lo que no queremos pensar” [We don’t want to think about it,] Joel replies, growing serious.

“No sabemos si vamos a tener un día más de vida, no podemos adelantar,” [We don’t know if we are going to have another day of life, we can’t get ahead of ourselves,] he says.

“Que quisieras?” [What would you like?] I ask him.

“Yo quisiera que apareciera un ángel” [I wish an angel would appear to me] he says, difficult to hear over the sounds of traffic and his partners talking all at once.

“Quisiera que amaneciera bien, te lo juro. Yo le orare a ese Dios…que yo no piense más en drogas. Que no piense más en drogas y me sienta bien mi cuerpo. Que no me importe. Se que va a ser imposible, pero…” [I wish I could wake up well, I swear to you. I will pray to that God…that I won’t think any more about drugs. That I won’t think any more about drugs and my body will feel well. That it won’t matter to me. I know it will be impossible but…] His voice trails off.

A bio-hazard box full of used needles, sits ready for disposal.
A bio-waste box, full of used needles, sits ready to be collected for proper disposal. Used needles pose a serious health risk, not only because of their potential to transmit disease, but also because their tips dull after one use and damage skin, leaving users susceptible to infection. Needle exchanges ensure drug users don’t have to reuse or share their needles, giving them an opportunity to maintain their health until they are ready to seek treatment, which the organization provides.

We keep talking: about our route for the rest of the night, about rounds that have brought hot soup and new clothes in the past, about our futures.

“Algún día podrán notar la superación de algunos de nosotros,” [Some day you all might write about the success of some of us,] says Joel when we explain our aspirations to be journalists.

“Si, en un nuevo día” [Yes, on a new day,] I say to him.

“No en El Nuevo Día no! No me gusta ese periódico” [No in El Nuevo Día, no! I don’t like that paper], he replies sternly. We all laugh, sharing in his joke. We say our goodbyes, hand out a few more coffees, and move on.

There are still five hours left in our round.

Featured Image: A man sits alone at 11 p.m. on a closed restaurant’s patio in San Juan, Puerto Rico.