by: Jonathan Doucette
“That’s so great you want condoms to keep yourself and your partners safe!” my new boss Catherine yelled out the passenger side window of the HIPS outreach van, her bright voice rising above the DC din. “But could you please do me a favor and put your penis away? Thank you!”
I have been working for HIPS (“Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive”) located in NE DC for the greater part of four weeks, learning the intricacies driving the organization’s harm reduction model. Servicing “male, female, and transgender” sex workers and drug users, HIPS attempts to “meet people where they’re at” in an effort to prevent the spread of HIV and other STIs, particularly Hepatitis C (a virus that now rivals HIV in America by an alarming ratio of 4:1). Ours is not a mission to condone or condemn those involved in sex work, rather our theory of change rests in the belief that our community members are experts in their particular field: that they know what they want and need to live a healthy and sustainable life. HIPS attempts to aid, affirm, and/or otherwise advocate for such healthy life-choices. Is a client coming in to exchange used syringes for new needle heads? Wonderful! Way to keep yourself safe! Did a community member have a particularly trying week only to call the HIPS hotline in an attempt to talk through emotional issues? We love it! Did an intern do a particularly great job at making a new manila folder for outreach organization? “It makes us wet!” Catherine might say. Affirmation, people. HIPS lives and breathes affirmation.
Like most non-profits, HIPS’ lofty ambitions are often curtailed by funding, particularly as it relates to our Mobile Overnight Outreach Van. Our van heads out to various “strolls” in the DC area every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night between 11:00 PM – 5:00 AM helmed by four dedicated volunteers handing out safer sex supplies, new syringes and needle heads, water, iced tea, hot chocolate (for those winter months), and, most importantly, blow pops. Our community members run the gamut of sexual and gender expressions, from cis-males and butch queens to trans women to poly queers. In the coming months, HIPS hopes to recruit volunteers for the outreach van that reflects such wonderful diversity. Particularly, we hope to recruit former sex workers and drug users to volunteer for overnight outreach shifts through a new grant from Echoing Green and GOODmaker. For those interested, check out a bitchin’ video featuring Ms. Paula and Xion, two peer educators, discussing the unique needs of trans women while on the stroll, It was made on an iPhone, so please excuse it’s boot-leggy feel. Also, *shameless (butt-)plug,* feel free to “vote” for HIPS on these two grant websites, as our grant money is contingent entirely through online votes.
As a new employee, I have been overwhelmed by the type of collaborative and solidarity work HIPS engages in on a daily basis. Having volunteered for the overnight van (only once), I have seen fearless women discuss the challenges of the stroll given the rise of brutal police presence and violence, I have heard heartfelt stories of those struggling with heroin addiction while handing out new syringes, and as the opening quote highlights, I have seen ass-wipes drunkenly provoke the largely cis-female volunteer base. All clients were met with dignity.
We all have a stake in how our sexual bodies are governed, either by police intervention or cultural norms. Stigma directly influences one’s access to health, life, and citizenship, as academic studies and personal anecdotes show. As Ms. Paula stated during her interview while referring to her “trans sisters,” “most of them have nowhere to go. HIPS is the only place!” Without access to healthcare, without access to resources to stay alive, a harm reduction model seems the one of the most efficient, ethical, and essential pieces of the puzzle to ensure all citizens have the right to a prosperous and healthy existence.
Jonathan Doucette often wakes up confused and disoriented, forgetting that he lives and works in rural Slovakia as an English teacher. He gets a sadistic rush when yelling at his students, and then feels guilty, allowing them to watch four episodes of the insufferable Big Bang Theory the following lesson. He also kinda likes The Big Bang Theory now. Don’t tell anyone.