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Belmont Cragin, Hermosa

‘My Heart Is With The Community’: How A Belmont Cragin Mom Is Fighting For A Safer Chicago

Melissa Hernandez's Puerto Rico Project provides food and supplies to people experiencing homelessness. She connects people to treatment programs and helps victims of trafficking.

Melissa Hernandez, 39, stands on the front steps of her home. House number blurred at request of subject.
Keerti Gopal/Block Club Chicago
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Editor’s note: This story contains descriptions of substance use, rape and trafficking.

Melissa Hernandez started the Puerto Rico Project to help people struggling with homelessness and unsafe substance use. Photographer Keerti Gopal documented Hernandez’s efforts to make Chicago safer.

BELMONT CRAGIN — Melissa Hernandez is a Belmont Cragin resident, mother, outreach director at Above and Beyond Family Recovery Center for addiction recovery and founder of the Puerto Rico Project.

Hernandez started the Puerto Rico Project in 2015 to provide essential services and support to Puerto Rican victims of addiction and trafficking in Chicago.

Credit: Keerti Gopal/Block Club Chicago
Above and Beyond is an outpatient addiction treatment facility on the West Side. It is dedicated to providing services to all people regardless of socioeconomic status. The center’s newest mutual aid effort is a food pantry that opened May 7 and provides free food and grocery items for anyone who needs it. Hernandez spends afternoons at the pantry helping community members pick up groceries.
Credit: Keerti Gopal/Block Club Chicago
For Hernandez, this work is deeply personal. “Half my life I was impacted by incarceration, drug use, poverty and stuff like that,” Hernandez said. “It’s just such a major tortuous challenge to get through and over that, because so many doors kept shutting in my face. It’s just the most horrible shit ever. I went through a lot of healing, too, years of therapy.”

While Hernandez was growing up, she was sexually abused and exposed to drug dealing and abuse, she said.

Hernandez became addicted to drugs as a teenager, and she was sex trafficked at 17.

“To be honest, I kind of look back sometimes and I’m like, ‘How the hell did I survive all this shit?'” she said.

Credit: Keerti Gopal/Block Club Chicago
Hernandez sits at her desk and responds to emails in the Above and Beyond Family Recovery Center.
Hernandez lives with her two sons: Jimmy Melendez (pictured), 17, and Joshua Hernandez, 12. The family also includes a cat named Jupiter, five turtles, four birds and a snake named Rose (pictured). Melendez is a junior in high school, and he said he plans to study something related to finance or economics in college. “Be careful with your sister,” Hernandez said as her son held the snake. Laughing, she added, “We don’t even know if she’s a girl.”

Hernandez had her first child in 2004. She said becoming a mother was a turning point for her.

“When I became a mother, it was the most torturous, depressing, beautiful [thing] … all at the same time. It’s so conflicting,” Hernandez said. “It’s like, I want to do all these amazing things and make all these changes and give my children all these things I never had, have them experience the world — and I couldn’t do shit. I couldn’t even afford dinner. I struggled to pay rent.”

Credit: Keerti Gopal/Block Club Chicago
Hernandez cooks in her kitchen, preparing to do outreach at homeless encampments around the city for her organization, the Puerto Rico Project.

Hernandez’s desire to provide for her children inspired her to go to trade school, where she became certified as a dental assistant. She said that when she first experienced the school environment, she suffered from panic attacks.

“The transition was just like the most scariest shit ever,” she said. “The transition [to school from] being trafficked, addicted to drugs, being in jail, all that stuff … [it was] scary as hell.”

Credit: Keerti Gopal/Block Club Chicago
As Hernandez waits for the pasta to cook and for one of her volunteers to join her, she takes a break on the front steps of her home. “I don’t think people really get it,” she said. For “a lot of people who didn’t grow up the way I did, it’s like, ‘What the hell are you scared of?'”

“When I see people who haven’t really experienced a lot or even a quarter of what I did, they just maneuver so freely, you know. I used to get so jealous,” Hernandez said. “Like, oh my God, I wish I was like that. How come they don’t have fear? How come they don’t get nervous? What is it?

“I didn’t understand it. But I pushed through.

“I graduated on the dean’s list. I became obsessed with my work. And that was the first time that I started something and completed it, ’cause I was always starting something, [then] fear got in the way and I stopped.”

Credit: Keerti Gopal/Block Club Chicago
Hernandez packs to-go boxes with homemade pasta and bread on her dining room table. She will drive these meals to homeless encampments, where she will hand them out to anyone who wants them.
Credit: Keerti Gopal/Block Club Chicago
Hernandez packs kits of Naloxone, a drug that rapidly reverses opioid overdose. At the encampments, she will hand out Naloxone along with clean syringes and safer smoking kits. Hernandez practices harm reduction: working to minimize dangers and negative effects of drug use without judgement or coercion.

After several years working as a dental assistant, Hernandez went back to school, this time to study liberal arts, taking classes in fields like sociology and cultural anthropology.

Hernandez was inspired to begin reaching out to Chicagoans experiencing homelessness during a sociology class at Wilbur Wright College.

“[My professor] was talking about how society lacks empathy, and I remember sitting right there and I was like, ‘She’s right. F-cking society, man.’ … And then she was like, ‘I just wanna remind you that you are society.'”

Hernandez gasped, re-enacting her reaction from class. “I was like, … ‘She’s right. Oh my God, I’m the problem. … I play a role in this, too!’ It actually became a mission.”

Credit: Keerti Gopal/Block Club Chicago
Hernandez and her oldest son, Jimmy, carry hot meals and supplies to her car. “That’s how we got started,” she said, referencing the Puerto Rico Project. “It started with me and my kids.”
Credit: Keerti Gopal/Block Club Chicago
Hernandez hugs her son goodbye before departing. License plate blurred at request of subject.

That day in class, Hernandez decided she would start feeding people experiencing homelessness.

“I was like, ‘F-ck it, I’m gonna do it myself,'” she said. “I literally had $1 to my name and a quarter tank of gas.”

Hernandez got gas money and a few groceries from friends and family, and she began conducting outreach with her oldest son, Jimmy.

Credit: Keerti Gopal/Block Club Chicago
At the first encampment of the night, Hernandez walks back and forth, calling out, “Anybody need any supplies? Syringes, Naloxone, crack pipes, food, water?”

Hernandez provides foods and supplies — everything from Naloxone, to reverse overdoses, and clean syringes to shoes and bus passes — to people using drugs and struggling with homelessness. She’s connected people to treatment programs.

In 2015, as her outreach increased, Hernandez — who is Puerto Rican — heard about communities of Puerto Rican victims of trafficking and addiction in Chicago, she said.

Hernandez learned that over the past decade, government officials from a range of Puerto Rican municipalities had encouraged hundreds of people struggling with addiction to buy one-way tickets to cities in the mainland US — including Chicago — with promises of drug treatment, housing and employment. According to Vice News, nearly 800 people struggling with heroin use were sent to cities on the mainland, including at least 120 to Chicago.

WBEZ found the facilities to treat these people were often unlicensed or unsafe, and large numbers of people sent to Chicago ended up experiencing homelessness and living without support.

“We started getting a lot of phone calls that there’s a whole bunch of Puerto Ricans who are hungry who needed our help and nobody’s helping them,” she said. “We went over there, and I swear to goodness when I talked to the first guy, this energy went from my head all the way down to my feet. And I’m like, ‘I belong here. I gotta help them.'”

Credit: Keerti Gopal/Block Club Chicago
Destiny Botello, 37, who accepted supplies from Hernandez, said honest communication is essential in providing meaningful help to people experiencing homelessness. “A lot of people just assume what we need and dump it,” she said, describing waking up to a pile of unwanted items outside of her tent. People act “like we’re contagious, and addiction is not contagious.” Botello said asking people what they need reveals necessities that people not experiencing homelessness don’t always think about. “We need the basics. Tarps for our tents because when it rains our stuff gets wet and we lose everything. … Sometimes just bins that keep our stuff off the floor of our tent, because when it rains and the floor gets flooded, our tents get flooded. … Simple storage things, bins, plastics, simple stuff like that.”
Hernandez and Monique Esparza (far left), 41, a devoted volunteer with the Puerto Rico Project, chat with Veronica Wronkiewicz (sitting), 24, and Barbara Fernandez, 32, after giving them supplies. Wronkiewicz, who Hernandez said she has provided services to for several years, is pregnant.
Credit: Keerti Gopal/Block Club Chicago
Hernandez’s own experience makes her uniquely positioned for this work. Remembering her recovery, she said, “It was really torturous. When you shed these parts of who you need to shed and who you no longer are, it’s painful. It’s a painful process; it’s also like a grieving process. And you don’t understand what’s happening. You feel like you’re in a different world. No one can relate to you.”

Hernandez said race is an essential part of the conversation around drug use — and one that is often overlooked.

According to The New York Times, “prior to the 1980s, whites and nonwhites were equally represented among first-time heroin users.” Despite this, discriminatory drug laws violently and punitively targeted communities of color, with Black and Latino people arrested and incarcerated at drastically higher rates than their white counterparts.

The 2000s brought about a shift: In the decade leading up to 2015, nearly 90 percent of first-time heroin users were white. As growing numbers of white Americans began dying from opioid overdose, the nation and its lawmakers started paying attention. In 2017, the federal Department of Health and Human Services declared the opioid epidemic a national public health emergency.

“When people say, ‘Oh, yeah, the opioid crisis.’ That shit just f-cking hits a nerve, for the simple fact that it’s always been a crisis in our communities,” Hernandez said. “It became a crisis when the suburban whites started dying from it … and I was like, are you f-cking kidding me? We had grieving moms in our communities of color since the beginning of time. Our fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters been dying since the beginning of time; nobody gave a f-ck. I was like, no, nobody cares about our grief.”

Credit: Keerti Gopal/Block Club Chicago
Wronkiewicz and Fernandez live in a communal home with others who are struggling to find permanent housing. Some living in the home use drugs, and Wronkiewicz told Hernandez she has needed to give out Naloxone. Fernandez, who said she was exhausted after a long day of work at a restaurant Downtown, pets Wronkiewicz’s dog.
Credit: Keerti Gopal/Block Club Chicago
Hernandez drives away from an encampment after handing out supplies. “I used to get a lot of messages of people like, ‘Oh my god, how do I do that?'” she said. “And I’m like, ‘Dude, it’s so easy.'” Hernandez said people get intimidated by the idea of conducting outreach on their own. “They’re like, ‘Holy shit, I can’t do it,'” she said. “And I’m like, ‘Yeah, you can!’ You can do whatever you put your heart and mind to.”

Hernandez’s next goal for the Puerto Rico Project is to acquire a mobile shower unit. People who wish to donate to the group can do so online.

Hernandez plans to focus on the Puerto Rico Project for another year before running for alderwoman in her ward. When asked why she wants to take that step, her answer was simple.

“Because my heart is with the community,” she said. “I’d like to lift their voices up.”

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