SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Caridad Colón had never known what it was like to be hungry, homeless or unemployed in her 47 years living in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.
She was financially independent for nearly three decades, first working as a cashier in a Chinese restaurant and later as a secretary for a global transportation business after three years' worth of university studies.
But her company recently joined the scores of businesses that have closed as Puerto Rico struggles to emerge from a six-year recession. Colón lost her job, and eventually her home.
"I have always been a person who has worked my whole life," she said. "It's very frustrating. You feel this horrible helplessness ... you start to think, how did I reach this point?"
Puerto Rico's homeless population has risen sharply in the past two years amid an ongoing economic crisis that includes a nearly 14 percent unemployment rate, higher than any U.S. state. Officials say they expect the problem will only grow worse.
More than 1,650 homeless people were estimated to be living just in the less-populated half of the U.S. territory's this year, up from 980 two years ago, according to the nonprofit Puerto Rico Pro Homeless Coalition of Coalitions. Officials say they are finding a similar increase in the more-populated San Juan metropolitan area, though that report is still being completed.
"This is the most dramatic number we've seen," said executive director Francisco Rodriguez.
Across the island of 3.7 million people, homeless people can be seen sleeping on park benches, under bridges or in doorways. Many are addicted to drugs, and it is common to see them begging at stoplights in and around San Juan.
Contributing to the problem is the island's home foreclosure rate, which rose again this fiscal year to more than 13,600 cases, according to the Courts Administration. There were more than 13,400 cases the previous fiscal year, compared to about 7,300 cases in fiscal year 2003.
Meanwhile, Puerto Rico's median household income has dropped in recent years while its poverty rate has inched up to nearly 47 percent. That's compared with Mississippi, the poorest state in the U.S. where nearly 23 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
Rodriguez said that nearly 80 percent of previous cases involving homeless people were tied to drugs, but that financial and family problems now play a bigger part. "We're seeing more women on the street," he said.
Colón said she lived off her limited savings and then sold her microwave oven, living room set and other items before she was forced to move out of her rented apartment.
Having no parents, grandparents, children or a significant other, Colón found herself on the street.
She spent one night as a homeless person, choosing to go to a 24-hour Wal-Mart in the municipality of Bayamón, just south of San Juan.
"It was the only solution, the only place where I would feel somewhat safe," she said.
She arrived around 1 a.m. and left in the morning after having spent several hours walking around the store.
"I pretended I was shopping," Colón said. "It was very hard. You ask yourself, 'How many hours are left? I want to sleep.'"
That morning, she spent what little savings remained on renting a bedroom from the manager of a San Juan apartment complex that, unknown to her, was nicknamed "Crackville" for the proliferation of crack cocaine. She shares a bathroom with two heroin addicts and has learned to listen for strangers outside the door before leaving the apartment. "I am terrified of my neighbors," she said. "I sprint up and down those stairs."
Officials with a nonprofit San Juan organization called The Hospice of Jesus said Colón's situation is typical of homeless people struggling to find permanent, affordable housing. Aggravating the situation in Puerto Rico is the lack of emergency shelters and transitional housing, Rodriguez said.
Only 24 beds are available for people without homes in the island's southern and western regions, while Puerto Rico's second largest city, Ponce, has no shelter for about 200 homeless people, said Rodriguez.
Most of the island's homeless live under bridges or sleep on park benches or parking lots, like 45-year-old Yadis Agosto, who recently moved back to Puerto Rico from Ohio.
The recovering crack addict said she grew up with an alcoholic father and began using drugs when she was 14. "Now I'm clean," Agosto said. But she's still struggling to find a place to live.
Ivette Pérez Toro, special assistant to the Department of Family secretary, blamed the growing number of homeless women in Puerto Rico on domestic violence and the financial crisis. "Unemployment has had a domino effect," she said. "They lose their homes, their cars."
As a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico received $16 million in federal funds this past year to target homelessness. Although a big increase from the $3 million the island received in the early 2000s, far more is needed, Pérez said.
Some 1,500 homeless people a year alone visit The Hospice of Jesus in San Juan, said Edwin Otero, director of volunteer and external services. "We have to keep looking for more resources to deal with an increase in people," he said.
Caridad Colón is among dozens of people who stands in line for food at the hospice daily. "Just like them, if I don't come here, I don't eat," she said.
Colón said when she first arrived at the program, she couldn't talk when workers asked her questions. She could only cry. "To go from being a completely independent person to one completely dependent on someone for everything, including food, that changes your perspective," she said.
Without work for eight months, she's still looking after applying for jobs as a cashier, a security guard and a maintenance worker.
"Once I get a job, I can put my bills in order and take charge of my life again," she said.