Bronx ministry lures addicts from Puerto Rico aloft promise of salvation

Alfonso Casta fled the ministry after less than a week, ending up alone, homeless and addicted in a strange city. Photo: Alexander Hotz

Eduardo Rosa was homeless at 50, on the streets of Vega Alta, Puerto Rico, after his brother kicked him out of his house for smoking crack. But what Rosa did have was a name from 1,500 miles away.

“I want the guy they call ‘Palmares,’” Rosa told local officials when they offered him aid. With his mayor’s financial help, he boarded a plane to New York.

In towns across the island, the name of Julio Palmares, a pastor in the Bronx, is synonymous with recovery from addiction. His Ministerio Renovación Cristiana claims to cure drug addicts through prayer.

Rosa still lives in the ministry, a year later. “I like it here and I don’t want to go back,” Rosa said. “The change in people and in my life, I’m grateful.”

Many alumni remain in the Bronx. Jeffry Salgado arrived in 2001 with 15 other men from Dorado, courtesy of their mayor. At the height of his heroin addiction, Salgado had stolen his grandmother’s oxygen tank to sell. “I knew she could die, but in that moment I didn’t care,” said Salgado. Today, his beard neatly trimmed, he wears clean, fashionable clothes. Salgado takes English classes, lives with his wife, aspires to become a mechanic.

Salgado and Rosa are among of thousands of men Palmares relocated to the Bronx since opening the ministry’s doors in 1999. But the pastor’s declining health was apparent during a gathering late last year, as program administrators helped him get to his seat. He was frail and walked with a cane.

In March, Palmares’ son informed the ministry of the pastor’s death at age 65. His demise leaves his ministry at a crossroads. He was the first to admit that his path to freedom from addiction was not for everyone. Some ended up on the streets of the Bronx, still hooked.

“I had to stop because it was like cleaning up Puerto Rico and dirtying New York,” said Palmares this winter. “For that, they should stay in their towns.”

For mayors in Puerto Rico, sending drug addicts to the Bronx became a no-lose proposition: at the very least, they would have a safe place to live. Mayor Carlos Lopez Rivera of Dorado paid a visit soon after the ministry’s founding to see it for himself. He proceeded to raise private funds and send scores of addicts to the ministry. “They had very basic facilities,” said Johnny Acevedo, an assistant to Mayor Rivera, who came on the trip. “I saw they lacked a lot, but compared to the conditions an addict has gotten himself into, at least there was a roof with three square meals a day.”

Acevedo says his town, once overrun with drug users, now has far fewer addicts seeking help. “In Dorado, Julio’s program has made the difference.” Mayor Rivera wasn’t alone in his appreciation: plaques dedicated to Palmares dot the walls of the ministry’s office.

Mayor Josian Santiago of In Comerio heads the association of mayors in Puerto Rico, and usually prefers to seek local programs for addicts. But when drug users ask for a plane ticket to the mainland he obliges, and he says he understands why so many of his colleagues relied on the Bronx ministry. “Relocating them to a new environment is like a rebirth,” he said. Not only does their citizenship status grant them access to welfare, but in a new city where no one knows them, they’re more apt to find employment instead of fighting their past as drug users in their hometown.

Palmares recognized the struggles the new arrivals were going through. He had once been in straits as bad or worse as theirs, addicted to drugs when he was arrested and sent to prison in the 1980s for manslaughter. He says an angel visited his cell in Orange County upstate. After that, he claimed, him overcame his addiction and even HIV. Once out on parole, he sought to help other addicts heal through devotion.

“God gave me this program,” he said to us. “If I can change, so can they. I’m here to show them the way.”

That path led Palmares to the city Human Resources Administration office near Yankee Stadium, where the pastor and his aides signed up new recruits for an array of welfare benefits that were and remain the financial lifeblood of the ministry. Anyone who stays for longer than two months signs up for food stamps — to be pooled into a common grocery fund — and $166 a month in cash assistance. They surrender their benefit card PIN numbers to the ministry. The ministry then redistributes the welfare cash every two weeks, and then only once a resident makes a request for a specific purchase. In New York State, it’s legal for individuals to pool or share their benefits with designated individuals, and Palmares took full advantage.

The ministry also receives $215 in HRA rent subsidies for each man each month, a sum limited only by the number of men the ministry can pack into the house. The men’s quarters are cramped, floorboards are rotting and parts of the home smell strongly of mold.

HRA told The New York World it could not fulfill a freedom of information request seeking details on rental assistance paid to the ministry, saying that the information could not be extracted from the agency’s databases with reasonable effort. But until three years ago, its residence-cum-treatment center housed between 60 and 70 men at any time, residents recall, and at one point as many as 95 stayed there.

That was in its former home on 141st Street and Jackson Avenue, which the ministry had to flee when the Fire Department shut it down in 2009. Inspectors found nine residences carved out of a house that was only permitted to be a home for three families. Department of Buildings records show that the residence racked up $54,000 in fines. Today, that derelict building serves as a clandestine shooting gallery and squat for homeless addicts.

Since then, the ministry has occupied a house perched next to the Major Deegan Expressway. It’s less crowded but still cramped: Two dozen men share four bedrooms and two bathrooms, stuffing the brick attached home far beyond its legal capacity.

The men spend their days together, mostly in prayer. An hour’s morning devotion is followed by breakfast and chores, and then more group sessions to build resistance to temptation. They reflect, and they repent. On Sundays, residents church-hop on a circuit of Bronx Pentecostal ministries, turning Sabbath into an endless service.

For the men who seek Palmares’ ministry, getting free of addiction is often a matter of life and death. In the Bronx, the Center for Disease Control estimates that 17 percent of Puerto Rican addicts have HIV and nearly three in four are infected with Hepatitis C.

They aren’t alone in seeking a cure to addiction through worship — many Puerto Ricans do, both on the island and mainland. Yet there is little evidence faith-based treatment works. “Many of the drug free treatment programs in Puerto Rico are not using interventions based on scientific evidence of effectiveness,” said Dr. Carmen Albizu-Garcia, a professor at the Puerto Rico Graduate School of Public Health. “We lack data on their outcomes.”

What the participants have is faith. A mantra printed on copy paper reminds residents of “las tres preguntas” of the ministry and the answers to those three questions:

“Who are you?”
“A divine creation.”
“From where are you coming?”
“To do the will of God.”
“To where are you going?”
“There are two paths: the good and the bad. We’ve walked the bad and it brought us here. Now, we walk the good.”

The sign marks a delineation between the outside world, to be avoided, and the salvation to be found inside the center’s walls.

“From the front door on, people call this a program, but we’re a ministry,” said Palmares. “In here, what are we?”

“A family,” answered the roomful of men in unison.

Palmares nodded, satisfied with the answer, but with an added caveat.

“In a big family, there are always arguments,” he said.

Palmares’ strict regime failed many. When Alfonso Casta arrived at the ministry in 2003, clients huddled without heat, amid bedbugs, roaches and mice. Waking hours brought little relief: Days were strictly scheduled and clients were effectively under house arrest during their first two months. Within a week, Casta decided to get out. He was once again homeless and battling addiction.

Louis Baez, who came over from Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, left after two weeks at the ministry. He said many of the clients began abandoning the house because of the poor conditions and a tense atmosphere that sometimes led to fights when Palmares was not around. After leaving the program, Baez continued using heroin and was homeless. Today, he still uses, and lives in a group home with other addicts.

Louis Barrios, a Catholic pastor and professor at John Jay College, visited in 2007 and recalled the facility as “devastating” in its disrepair. He accuses Palmares of preying on the desperate. “The idea behind this place is to destroy the ego so they are born again,” said Barrios. “He’s using religion to oppress people.”

Palmares didn’t deny that he got tough. If someone brought drugs or alcohol to the house, or attempted to return after an escape, Palmares and residents would gather to berate and humiliate him as he sat on the floor. Forbidden to stand, he could only crawl, like a snake.

Even Salgado admitted that sometimes the pastor went too far. Once, Palmares ejected a resident into a winter snow after finding a beer can.

“I love him, but the problem with Palmares is that you have to do what he says when he says it,” Salgado said. “If he says something is red and it’s something blue, no. It’s red because he says it.”

Salgado, who worked as an administrator after participating in the program for a year, said that about half of the men left early during the three years that he worked there. These deserters often turn to the needle exchange or methadone clinics in the South Bronx for help. Health care workers at CitiWide Harm Reduction Inc., Promesa, St. Ann’s Harm Reduction, Narco Freedom and New York Harm Reduction Educators all report clients who came from Palmares’ ministry. Casta, who is now on methadone, works at CitiWide as a peer outreach specialist.

Salgado suggested that some addicts who came over might never have been serious about changing their behavior and only used the program as a “trampoline” to escape the island. “They knew they were getting free airfare, so many people took advantage of that,” he said.

Rafael Concepción, a former participant who is now running the program, acknowledged that wayward addicts who’d dropped out drew negative attention to the ministry. “They come over, stayed a couple weeks and then go back to the street,” said Concepcion, who is 53 and now works as a dishwasher at Hunter College when he’s not at the ministry. “Standing in a corner asking for money, robbing people, assaulting people.”

Neighbors, who asked not to be identified for fear of repercussions, say they have complained to various city agencies about problems associated with the house.

In the last months of Palmares’ life, Concepción ran the ministry began to prepare for the day his mentor would be gone. He had no doubt that Palmares’ road to a cure was the one addicts must continue to travel.

“He has maintained this program because of his character,” Concepcion said days before Palmares’ death. “I practically copied his style. That’s how I’m doing it. Just like he showed me.”

Additional reporting by Kristofer Rios. A condensed version of this story appeared in GlobalPost.

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