SALEM, Ohio (WKBN) – Thomas Santiago’s life reads like the pages from a newspaper’s crime section — gangs, guns, robberies and drugs… A lot of drugs.
So it was a struggle for Santiago to reach five years of sobriety.
Santiago grew up in the Bronx, New York City.
At 14, his stepfather left his mother.
“My family knew how bad I was. They knew there was stuff that I did since I was young,” he said.
His mother and siblings could stay with the rest of the family, but Santiago, they said, could not.
“Age of 14, I became homeless,” he said. “I stole a car, lived in a car for about a year. Then, I started living in pigeon coops.”
Abandoned buildings and city streets became home.
“I started doing the tattoos, getting arrested. I was a full-blown heroin addict here,” he said. “I was also in one of the largest Latin gangs in New York City.”
Santiago says the notorious Latin Kings gang became his new family.
As a teenager, he was making thousands of dollars a day dealing drugs. When he ran out of drugs or money, he would rob people.
“I’ve been shot four times, stabbed seven times, and it was all due to a bad transaction — me trying to rob somebody and didn’t know they had a gun, or me trying to rob somebody and didn’t know they were going to fight me back by stabbing,” he said.
When he really ran out of drugs and money, he would check himself into rehab. There, he would meet people and network with other addicts.
It was his system. He’d get back on the streets and start over.
For decades, the cycle continued.
In his early 40s, he moved to Youngstown to get away from that life, but it followed him. He continued using.
“Then, I met my wife in Youngstown, and that was the kickoff to my life that I have now. She had faith in me,” he said.
He has gone to drug rehab dozens of times. Finally, one worked.
“The first thing that came out of Laura’s mouth was, ‘You can do it,’ she said. ‘I can see it in your face; you can do it,'” he said.
From New York to Youngstown, he finally found the place that changed his life — the Family Recovery Center in Lisbon.
“The reason Family Recovery worked for me was because I was held accountable,” he said.
Santiago went through drug tests, counseling, meetings and listened to speakers. He said he never failed a drug test there, and he was never suspended.
Today, he’s 48 and married. He’s a Salem homeowner. And, he’s five years sober.
He does want to clear one thing up, though, the heroin crisis isn’t new.Video: “[The epidemic] is wildfire, that’s how I see it”
“In the 70s, in the 80s, it was just in the ghetto. It was in low-income families,” he said.
The problem is getting more recognition now because of where it’s spread to and how quickly a heroin addiction takes over a person.
“It’s wildfire, that’s what I see it. Wildfire. And the only reason there’s a little bit of acknowledgment is because it hit the suburban areas,” he said.
Middle-class families affected by this ugly epidemic could be the catalyst to change.
“They want rehabilitation; they want reform,” Santiago said. “They want more money for medication. They want new programs.”
Some treatment centers, he said, often treat addicts like cattle in a stable.
Addicts are pushed through detox programs where they are a name and number.
“At worst, I guarantee you, if we don’t do something within five years, this epidemic is going to be so bad, that we’re never going to be able to get a hand on it,” he said.
He said police need help.
“They do a great, great job. They put their life on the line for us. I respect them to the fullest, but there’s just not enough of them,” he said. “We need to invest more into law enforcement.”