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Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive: On the Van -- Part One

By Candace Y.A. Montague

December 27, 2010

HIPS volunteer Meredith Zoltick offers 'tools' and emotional support for sex workers. Photo: DC HIV/AIDS Examiner.

HIPS volunteer Meredith Zoltick offers "tools" and emotional support for sex workers. Photo: DC HIV/AIDS Examiner.

This article is a three part journal entry of sorts. A first hand glimpse at how a small-scale organization called HIPS (Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive) goes out into the red light district of DC after hours and distributes the tools that sex workers need to stay safe and stop the spread of HIV. The van goes out on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights from 11 pm until 5 am.

11:10 pm Friday night. International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. Jenna Mellor, Outreach Manager for HIPS, eagerly walks into the office ready to begin a night of outreach on the van. The front area of the Northeast based office is similar to a rec room in a college dormitory with big sofas, carpeting and a television. However, one wall has a large painting of a banana with a condom on it and soon visitors are reminded that this is no ordinary rec room. "So this is HIPS. Feel free to look around. If you have any questions, let me know." Her welcoming, spry demeanor radiates the entire room even though there's no one there at the moment. Soon after that, Mike Hardin, who works in public health, arrived and is warmly greeted by Jenna.

Mike will be the driver and team leader for the night. He is responsible for determining where the van will go and look out for possible trouble. He gets right to work on setting up the hot cocoa for travel. Jenna is the data collector. She heads to the back to pack up huge tubs with materials for distribution. "This is our supply closet. We have a great volunteer who keeps us stocked and helps us measure how many condoms we're giving out. He developed this amazing system and it's pretty accurate." The supply closet has an extensive collection of prophylactics and lubrication tubes as well as hypodermic needles and wound cleaning kits. Jenna and Mike get right to work and consult a checklist on the wall to ensure they have all that is needed for the night. Meredith Zoltick, a Public Health senior at George Washington University, joins in to help with preparations. She will be in the passenger seat also known as the "hot seat" tonight. She will be the face of and point of contact for the HIPS van.

12:22 am. The volunteers have finished loading up and Mike starts up the van. A black male with dread locked hair approaches the van. Meredith goes right to work. "Hey! Do you want some candy?" The man requests condoms and lube. Jenna bags up his requests while Meredith offers a quick sex tip. "Hey! You know what you can do? Put a drop of lube in the tip of the condom. It can help your partner cum faster. We have flavored lube too. Just don't use it in a woman because it could lead to yeast infections." The young man declines the flavored lube and walks away.

In that brief moment, Meredith has imparted some vital information about sexual health without judgment or lecture. "It helps people to know that we know about safe sex. And we know how to make safe sex sexier," she stated.

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12:51 A black female with a long, heavy winter coat and skull cap sits at a bus stop looking into every car as it rolls by. It's hard to tell if she is a prostitute or just an ordinary citizen waiting for a late bus. Mike pulls over and Meredith offers her hot cocoa, candy, water, and condoms. The woman accepts the condoms and cocoa. Nearby, three Hispanic males curiously peer into the van. Meredith turns to them and offers the same things in Spanish. They accept the cocoa and condoms. Mike pulls off.

The HIPS van is prepared for just about every request that a sex worker can make. They offer flavored, colored, female, extra large and non-lubricated condoms. It also has flavored and non-flavored lubricants, dental dams, and finger cots. There is literature on the van as well for those who are interested and information cards to make referrals but that's not the focus for the outreach. The focus is keeping the workers safe. HIPS offers a bad date card with a list of recent reports of people who have harassed, robbed or attacked workers on the street. "They're doing a public service. They have a right to protect themselves. We're not here because we think we know what they need. We're here because we care," says Jenna.

1:02 am Stopped at a brothel in a partially residential Northwest neighborhood. The manager, a Middle Eastern man sitting behind a bullet resistant glass booth, greets Meredith with a broad smile. He happily accepts a bag of condoms prepared in the van for him. There is a list of rules on the window of his booth. Rule number one: No prostitution. "I want to wish you a happy Christmas" he bellows as she leaves.

1:22 am Stopped at a popular nightclub with exotic dancers. While the men's eyes are locked on the stage, the women at the bar accept Meredith's bag of condoms. Meredith converses with them briefly then heads back to the van. Her eyes never met the stage.

1:35 am Stopped at a lively bar and dance spot along the Georgia Avenue corridor. Meredith dips in to drop off her bag of condoms and lube at the bar. As she reenters the van, a male bar patron approaches her. He asked about getting an HIV test. The volunteers welcome him onto the van and drive a distance away from the nightspot to a parking lot. He emerges from the van 30 minutes later HIV negative, relieved and ready to party again. At the same nightspot, an older black gentleman cautiously approaches the van for clean needles. He requested 30 blue heads (needles), condoms, and the works, which includes wound-cleaning materials. As Jenna loads up his supply and Mike stays on the look out for any danger, Meredith jots down the information she needs from him and issues him a new syringe exchange program card. Once again, the van is off and running.

In part two, the transgender population sounds off about HIPS and the police show their true colors during a stop.

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