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From the Field: Intercambios Puerto Rico

From the Field: Intercambios Puerto Rico

“Some look at me and think that what I say is hypocrisy … but the important thing is not the messenger but the message”

Robert Pereira is 64 years old and for more than years 40 used heroin. He is a little nervous for the interview we have said we will publish in the Housing Works website as an opportunity to spread a message of hope to many people.Contrary to what many people believe, Robert did not begin to use soft drugs like marijuana, he directly started with heroin. A relative introduced him; there was no social pressure from friends. He has spent many years in prison and claims to have done many things he regrets. But now all his experiences serve him as a Peer Educator for Intercambios Puerto Rico.

Housing Works and Intercambios PR share a common mission of providing care and treatment to the most marginalized and vulnerable populations, including drug users, sex workers, the homeless, LGBT people, the impoverished, and people living with HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, and other chronic conditions. Housing Works has provided technical and fiscal assistance to Intercambios since 2008.

This interview was conducted by Meritxell Roca and translated from Spanish.

Meritxell Roca: You were born in Puerto Rico but have lived mostly in the United States.
Robert Pereira: When I was five years old, my family moved to New Jersey, my parents and my sister … actually, she speaks better English than Spanish! My sister lives in Texas; I live in Puerto Rico.

MR: What is your profession?
RP: I’ve had a couple of conventional jobs, in a telemarketing company, in the Campbell Soup factory … but in fact I’m a “gambler”.

MR: Gambler?
RP: (… laughs) Yes, “gambler”, I won a lot of money betting poker, craps … but above all, pool. I think at one point I was playing 10 or 12 hours a day, learned a lot, and also gained a lot … the money came easy.

MR: How did you find Intercambios Puerto Rico?
RP: One day I met an Intercambios outreach worker and she told me that if I needed “works” (syringes) she could provide them through the syringe exchange program. Actually, I found the program by necessity, I felt discriminated … for many years I was a drug user, I’m stable now, but I know that reality well.

MR: Do you think your experience can help others?
RP: I think if young people see a movie of what real life is as an addict, not someone who occasionally consumes, but a person with a dependence on heroin who is all day doing things out of necessity, because there is little treatment available… if young people see this reality, they’ll maybe not inject.

MR: When you do needle exchange, what emotions do you have?
RP: Having been a user for so many years when I get to the copping areas, many people know me, know that before I was going to buy drugs or get syringes. Now is very different but it brings back bad memories. What I do is give advice, not lies. Some look at me and think that what I say is hypocritical because for a long time I bought drugs. But the important thing is not the messenger it is the message.

MR: Have you been surprised with what you’ve experienced?
RP: Surprised? No, what happens is that I’m sad to see very young people who are starting to use drugs without knowing what the life of an addict is like. I don’t want them to go through what I went through.

MR: How long did you use heroin?
RP: I was using heroin for almost 40 years but now it’s been about a year since I’ve used heroin and I’ve had time to think.

MR: To think about the future?
RP: To think about many things … think that the life of an addict is not just the drugs, it’s a pattern of life, you do not mind if you have debts … sometimes I was on the street, not going home to sleep, and did not care. Now I’ve had time to think and now what I care about is my family.

MR: Do you think Intercambios Puerto Rico helps people?
RP: Before Intercambios Puerto Rico, it was difficult to get syringes, many people shared no matter if it was bad for your health. The problem was that even if you went to the pharmacy, they did not sell them to you, you had to buy them at feed stores, we used syringes that were used to inject drugs into animals.

MR: What activities would you like the project to create to further help users?
RP: Orientation. We do needle exchange, we also talk to them and help them to gain access to health services. Sometimes people need treatment, but do not know how to access services, we orient them.

MR: What kind of treatment?
RP: There are people who really want to leave the drug world, but that is very difficult. The programs available are scarce and difficult access. Methadone, buprenorphine … I tell them to try with the “miracle-worker” (buprenorphine) because it is much easier to access and I think it’s a (substitution) drug that works well.

MR: What do you tell people who want to continue using drugs?
RP: Those who are not interested in quitting altogether, I tell them to take care of themselves, to not share syringes … I wish this program existed in many more communities in Puerto Rico.

Meritxell Roca is a journalist and an academic. She teaches Health Communication and News Writing and her research interests include, among others, media studies, women and gender studies, and free culture movements . Currently she is a Staff Research Associate at Columbia Business School, Columbia University.

To learn more about Intercambios Puerto Rico, click here.

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