What to Do About the Heroin ‘Air Bridge?' Public Hearing Held in Philly

Victims of the so-called "Air Bridge" are lured to Philadelphia from Puerto Rico with the hope of getting treatment for their heroin addiction, but they arrive to find real help is non-existent

State lawmakers are holding a public hearing in Philadelphia Tuesday to hear concerns about the Puerto Rican "Air Bridge," a process that sends heroin addicted people to the city from the island territory without support or treatment.

Pa. Rep. Angel Cruz (D-Phila.) organized the hearing at Philadelphia City Hall as chairman of the House Human Services Committee. Cruz represents Pa.'s 180th District, which is the epicenter of the city's open drug market, covering parts of the Kensington and Fairhill communities.

The district is home to El Campamento and a Conrail train trench, known locally as The Tracks, where heroin users seek refuge to shoot up and, sometimes, live. City officials say at least 17 people died in the trench last year. The number is likely much higher as nearly 900 people died of drug overdoses in Philadelphia in 2016. NBC10 ventured into the trench and encampment last year as part of "Generation Addicted," a special report on the heroin and opioid crisis.

Drug users in the throes of addiction often talk about venturing to the area and becoming stuck as they fight to assuage painful withdrawal. Some users, however, have no choice but to live in El Campamento or squat in abandoned homes after being lured to the region with the promise of help for their addiction, but finding none.

In the heart of Philadelphia’s open drug market, there’s an artery carrying drug addicted people to their high. A story from our award-winning 2016 special report on the heroin epidemic: “Generation Addicted: The New War on Addiction”.

These people are often victims of the "air bridge," a term coined for the quick flight link between Puerto Rico and Philadelphia. Users in Puerto Rico (or their families) often pay money to come to the U.S. mainland for addiction treatment. But when they arrive, they find real treatment options for them are non-existent. They're stranded in unregulated recovery homes that collect money, food stamps or other government assistance as payment for their stay.

Cruz invited Carmelo Ríos, a Puerto Rican senator, to take part in Tuesday's hearing. Arriving in Philadelphia on Monday, Ríos told sister station Telemundo62 that officials in Puerto Rico had identified several organizations believed to be involved in air bridge activities. He could not say whether authorities planned to file charges against the groups.

Philadelphia councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, whose district also includes Kensington called the air bridge "human trafficking under the guise of recovery."

Philadelphia's drug market has received increased attention recently as a city task force nears the completion of a study. The group will make recommendations for tackling the crisis. After years of neglect and ignorance, city and state officials vowed to clean up the neighborhoods affected by the heroin epidemic. Last week, Mayor Jim Kenney threatened to sue Conrail if they refused to clean up The Tracks and erect a prison-grade fence to close off the area.

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