Alex Sierra Negron fatally overdosed in a two-story house with pale green siding. Its windows and doors are boarded, but neighbor Maria Cadena said people have been entering the house since it became vacant less than a year ago.
Negron, 35, was with a friend near the house, early afternoon on Wednesday, February 17. He went in to get high while the friend waited outside. An hour later, the friend went in and found Negron on the second floor, unresponsive.
This is all contained in the Cook County Medical Examiner’s report, which found that Negron accidently overdosed on fentanyl, a synthetic opiate that can be 100 times more potent than heroin.
Negron’s story in Chicago began at a 24-hour group therapy residence on the West Side, like the ones WBEZ reported on last year. These programs, housed in storefronts or other buildings, function as unofficial treatment centers and temporary shelters for addicts, unlicensed and out of the regulatory eye of state agencies. Many people who’ve gone to these programs have told WBEZ that the people in charge were often ex-addicts, who did not provide medical treatment, confiscated their identifying documents, abused them verbally and forced them to crowd into dirty rooms where they slept on mattresses on the floor.
Following our reporting, several public officials called for action, including Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) . But a year later, many of the centers remain open and unregulated.
“That guy was traumatized by it,” said Melissa Hernandez, a close friend of Negron. “It was hard for him to talk about the program.”
Hernandez, who founded a group called the Puerto Rico Project to help addicts who were sent to Chicago, met Negron when he was living under a bridge. Negron had already spent time in one of those 24-hour centers.
“When he would talk about it, this look would come over his face of just anger,” recalled Hernandez. “And he would just tell me, ‘I would rather die than go back to one of those programs.’”
Hernandez helped Negron get into a methadone clinic, and he got clean for a while. He started helping her with street outreach, telling other addicts about where they could get treatment. He also helped Hernandez cook hot meals to bring to other Puerto Rican addicts who were living on the streets.
“There was times where I was like, ‘Holy moly, what am I going to cook? I only have like one pound of meat,’” Hernandez said, “and Alex would say, ‘I got this.’ And he would turn that into 30 meals with rice and a whole bunch of vegetables.”
But in early February, Hernandez said Negron called her, ranting about how he hated himself. He had relapsed. Hernandez helped him check into a hospital, where he was kept for one week and put on antidepressants to combat major depression.
Six days after he was discharged, he overdosed.
“I think had he stayed in Puerto Rico, he would have still been alive,” said Negron’s sister, Omayra Sierra. Speaking through an interpreter, Sierra explained in Spanish that her family paid for Negron’s ticket to Chicago because a police officer in Cidra, Puerto Rico, told them of a place where he could get stellar treatment.
“(They said) he was going to have his own room, that there was going to be a swimming pool, that everything was going to be really nice,” she remembered.
Negron arrived in Chicago in November of 2014. Sierra, who lives in Connecticut, came to visit him. The people running the treatment group initially told her she couldn’t see Negron, but finally relented. Sierra met her brother briefly in a waiting room. She was not allowed to see the living conditions inside.
Still, Sierra said she could tell that the program was not what her family had been promised, and she didn’t think it was a good place for her brother to stay.
“To be honest, exactly, there was no one there to talk about his condition,” Sierra said. “There wasn’t a doctor, a nurse, a professional administrator to explain what was going on.”
Sierra said she feels municipal officials in Puerto Rico lied to her family about the kind of treatment Negron would get. To professionals in the field of addiction treatment, Negron’s death highlights how those lies can have fatal results.
“I really believe the Attorney General needs to get involved, and I think these programs need to be shut down,” said Dr. Daniel Lustig, Vice President of Clinical Services at the Haymarket Center in Chicago.
Lustig said his clinic has seen a pronounced spike in the number of Puerto Rican addicts seeking treatment since WBEZ aired its coverage about the 24-hour groups. These individuals have been brought to the clinic by people like Melissa Hernandez. He said he’s disturbed that they continue to operate completely outside of any regulatory framework.
“For many years this field has been fraught with people who believe that breaking down an individual is the key to treatment. That’s not the way to handle addictions treatment,” explained Lustig. “A comprehensive approach in which you use many different evidence-based interventions to move people through recovery is key. And unlicensed agencies say they can do whatever they want when they want.”
When asked about whether these programs should be investigated for running unlicensed treatment programs, Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office directed WBEZ to the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation (IDFPR). The IDFPR pointed to the Illinois Department of Human Services.
A DHS spokesperson said the state agency has visited a couple of the treatment centers, but found nothing of concern. The agency asked WBEZ for more evidence of illegal activity before it could investigate.
This echoes the response from state and federal authorities last year, when we found evidence that the identities of some of these addicts had gotten into other people’s hands soon after they came to Chicago. Lustig said this game of hot potato is unacceptable, and it’s time for authorities to step in.
For Omayra Sierra, the blame goes back to Puerto Rico.
“Honestly, I don’t understand why people in Puerto Rico send them to Chicago,” said Sierra. “Alex had his family here, his father, his siblings. There were people around him. Sending him to Chicago alone, without family, he ended up on the street. I think he could have been helped in Puerto Rico.”
Sierra said Negron’s death has been hard on her family. She said they had great hope when they sent him for treatment in Chicago, and that she never imagined that Negron would end up homeless and dead in an abandoned building in a city far from home.