PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla.—Across the bridge from Palm Beach’s oceanfront mansions and Mar-a-Lago, the private club owned by President Donald Trump, where he spent seven weekends this past winter golfing and entertaining visiting heads of state, it’s not uncommon to see teenage junkies nodding off on coffee shop couches or to come upon them shooting up in supermarket bathrooms. Palm Beach heroin addicts like to get high in public places because if they accidentally overdose, there’s somebody around to call an ambulance. Heroin’s cocoon-like embrace is a national affliction, but here, in the shadow of some of Florida’s priciest real estate, paramedics responded to 5,000 overdose calls last year, nearly 600 of them fatal.
On the campaign trail, as he traversed small towns from Appalachia to the Midwest ravaged by heroin and prescription painkillers, then-candidate Trump promised to build a wall that would block drugs from entering the country. In March, as president, Trump pledged “to help those who have become so badly addicted.” The “total epidemic” that Trump says is “probably almost untalked about” is now in his backyard. Palm Beach County’s heroin crisis is both identical to the misery that has gripped economically ruined communities throughout the Rust Belt and also notably different. Here, the cure is the disease.
Palm Beach County is dubbed “the recovery capital of America” because it’s home to so many drug treatment centers, and has been for at least three decades. But in recent years its reputation as a balmy locale to get well has been particularly hard hit because of the proliferation of corrupt “sober homes,” communal houses for addicts who arrive from around the country, lured by offers of free rent, airplane tickets and even gym memberships. Unregulated, the operators, many of whom lack any professional training, ignore the rampant drug use at their facilities or even supply their clients with heroin so they can funnel them to outpatient drug treatment centers in exchange for bribes, an illegal practice known as “body brokering.” The owners keep them for as long as their insurance lasts, and then they kick them out, broke and still addicted. Local residents have taken to calling them “walkers,” a reference to the stumbling zombies in the TV show “The Walking Dead”: forlorn-looking kids wandering around in a daze, dragging suitcases or toting plastic bags, who often end up sleeping in the park.
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