Written by Yaiza Morales
Cars zoom past the bridge near the “Placita de Santurce” as they enter Condado, one of the most touristic areas in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He sits peacefully on his humble chair, a rusty can of Export Soda Crackers. Alone under a tree, accompanied by an accumulation of personal belongings, the place he calls his temporary home. People look the other way and roll their eyes as they drive by. “Another homeless person in San Juan,” they say. They assume he’s on drugs or that he must be an alcoholic. They think that he is there by choice. But hidden behind a bushy white beard and long silver hair, lies a very interesting man, a very special soul. If people would only take the time to get to know him, they’d be able to find out what we learned during our first conversation with Mr. Hector Fuentes, a.k.a. “Racúm.” This man is a kind and gentle human being with a fascinating story, who deserves a chance like everyone else.
Walking along my hometown of San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico, you cannot ignore the amount of homeless people in every corner and in every traffic light. The contrast of luxurious hotels and shops, intertwined with the financial desperation of the homeless asking for money is disheartening. Known as the “Island of Enchantment,” Puerto Rico is a beautiful tropical paradise lined with swaying palm trees, pristine beaches, and natural marvels coast to coast. Sadly, this Caribbean perfection to the senses is combined with a depressing social situation that goes beyond understanding. The amount of homeless people that roam the streets of its capital city seem to have multiplied since I was last here one year ago, making this one of the most daunting social problems the island is facing to this date. With a government in debt and a vast portion of the population struggling to make ends meet, it’s hard to see when these issues will ever cease to exist. Still, we must keep the faith and try our best to become part of the solution. Don’t you think?At his seventy-one years of age, Racúm is one of the many Puerto Ricans who finds himself without a home and without a job. For the past eight years of his life, he has had to endure life on the streets. When we asked him if he was living on the street corner where we first saw him, his answer was: “I don’t live here. I live everywhere. This is just where I sleep.” When we first caught a glimpse of Racúm, we were instantly drawn to him. We just had to talk to him. This is his story.
A toothless smile decorated his thin tanned face and as we approached him, his eyes twinkled with delight at the thought of visitors. He stood up, and welcomed us by pulling up an empty can of paint, where he asked us to sit down. He wore a long sleeved jean shirt and a pair of jeans that hung over his thin body. The smell of urine filled the air and a plastic tarp covered a mountain range of objects he’d collected over the years. Umbrellas, chairs, pillows, blankets, and towels were all tucked away from the rain. There was even a Ninja Turtle action figure resting at our feet. “People see you living on the street and they think that you don’t want to move forward in your life, that you don’t want to improve yourself. They think you are either a drug addict or that you must be insane. They think you have chosen this path and that you are there by choice. But if you have a million obstacles in your way, moving forward becomes impossible. I try to earn a living in an honest way, by cleaning cars or raking leaves, and even so, the police beats me up, people make fun of me, and they think I am crazy. Still, I am ok. I have my plans and most importantly I have my hopes and dreams. I believe everybody has the right to have something, especially the right to be happy.”
Racúm dreams of having his own place one day. “I’d be satisfied with a small little room with just a bed or a place to lie at night away from the rain. That would be enough for me. I don’t need a fancy house you know. Sometimes I dream of buying a little boat and sailing off into the sea. Will it ever happen for me? I don’t know. But, I can dream right?” Until then, he fulfills his fantasies of a better life with Art. A self- taught artist, Racúm rummages around Santurce and gathers materials to make his elaborate works of art. He paints, draws, and makes lovely sculptures. Art is his therapy and it keeps his mind occupied. “I feel lonely, but I know that it’s all in my mind. The mind is very powerful and if you let it, it can destroy you. You have to be positive and you have to keep yourself busy. You start feeling less lonely if you tell yourself that there are people out there that love you, people that are kind. This helps a lot. Sometimes I pretend I have someone living with me here on the streets. I talk to him or her and I say things like: ‘Don’t forget to close the door when you come to bed.’ People that walk by must think I’m crazy if they hear me talking to myself. But actually, it’s the only way that I can stay sane. “Things weren’t always this way for Racúm. As a child, he led a very humble life with his brothers and sisters in Carolina. Like many Puerto Ricans, he moved to New York City in the 1960’s in search of the almighty American dream. His years in NYC were spent working at a factory where he made tailored suits. Although life was good in the U.S., Racúm missed his tropical roots, which is the reason he decided to move back years later. Having lost track of time and reality, Racúm doesn’t really remember how he ended up living in the streets. He says he came back to the island, rented out a little room and when it burned down a few years later, he lost everything. Our visits to Racúm became a routine during our stay in Puerto Rico. We’d bring him food, drinks, clothes, and medication among other things he needed. Other than this, we began formulating a plan to get him off the streets. OCP would be visiting La Perla de Gran Precio, a wonderful organization that caters to the homeless with HIV/AIDS. Although Racúm did not qualify to receive their services, one of their social workers kindly agreed to help us on our mission. Although he was willing to do everything in his power to help out, he warned us that it would be an “uphill battle,” since according to him, the services in Puerto Rico for homeless and elderly people without drug problems are more scarce than those designed to help HIV/AIDS patients and drug users. During our research, we discovered that most shelters and homes in Puerto Rico are in fact religious institutions that have very strict programs and schedules for their clients that include physical work and selling cakes in traffic lights among other strenuous activities. Turned off by his age and his state of health, his profile did not fit any of the shelters available. It seemed like the only option would be to take him to a place like the Salvation Army, which only provides a bed at night and a meal. Yet, the rest of the day, Racúm would have to go back on the streets. The One Chance Project reached out to the many homes and shelters available on the island, and the results were discouraging, to say the least. With the help of our social worker friend, we found one shelter that could possibly take him in. The other challenge was actually motivating Racúm to receive the services he needs and deserves. He wanted help, but was overwhelmed by the process. After many pep talks and constant visits, he agreed and it was time for the big move. He was ready…or so we thought. We had arranged a day in which we would meet him, and the social worker would take him to the hospital for a general checkup. Afterwards, he would be taken to the shelter, where The One Chance Project would propose to sponsor Racúm’s stay if necessary; in order to ensure that his medical and nutritional needs were being met. Everything was set, and we were on our way. When we arrived at the spot, Racúm was nowhere to be found. We drove around for hours, and went to every single place imaginable. Nothing. In fact, even his belongings had disappeared! We decided to drive past his corner one last time before leaving Puerto Rico, and there he was, resting under the tree where we had met him weeks before. He explained that he wasn’t ready for the change and that he needed more time to “arrange a few things.” Life on the streets had become his world, it is all he knew, and the fear of the unknown made him reluctant to receiving help. Nonetheless, he expressed that he thought he would be ready if given more time. Let’s pray that one day he’ll be ready to accept the help he needs to get back on his feet.The One Chance Project has big hopes for Racúm and for the rest of the homeless in Puerto Rico and around the world. Most importantly, we have hope in humanity. We have faith in you! Small acts of kindness can make a huge difference! Please don’t ignore the homeless and the less fortunate. Please don’t look away. Talk to them, share your food or anything you can, and most importantly, see how you can help. You never know…you just might be the person that could change someone’s life forever, just by showing that you care.