December 29, 2010
Survival with support. Photo: hips.org.
This final installment of the series explains why and how HIPS supports sex workers when the world has turned their backs on them.
Why would someone purposely put himself or herself in harm's way to turn tricks on the street? For drugs? To feel powerful? To support a family? Prostitution is a very dangerous profession. Aside from being snubbed by the community, sex workers are ridiculed, beaten, raped, and robbed. But for the staff at HIPS it doesn't work that way. HIPS does not exist to condone the act of solicitation but simply protect their workers from crime, injustice and sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV.
HIPS was formed in 1993 by a group of advocates and parents of kids who were out on the street. Terri Williams led the group, which was a cooperative extension service of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), to reach out to women at night on the street. She became the first Executive Director. A few years later, a young college student by the name of Cyndee Clay attended a benefit concert for HIPS at the University of Maryland. She signed up to volunteer, ran a drop in center for LGBT youth and in 2001 became the Executive Director. "I never meant to stay here this long. But there's always new challenges and new stuff to do. I mean how cool is it to have a job you totally love to do?" explains Clay.
Still prostitution is an illegal business and the clandestine nature of how it is conducted makes it hard for workers to get assistance. How does HIPS manage infiltrate the world of prostitution in order to help the workers? "We help them with what they want help with not what we think they need help with," Clay presents in an interview. "People who do sex work don't have someone to talk to about what they do. So we build relationships here. Instead of saying 'you're bad. You shouldn't be doing this,' we try to build people up. We work hard to be client based." It is the client-based approach that helps the workers feel more relaxed when they come to HIPS. Not only do they get help with their current way of life but they can also get help to get out of it if they desire.
The stigma surrounding sex work also makes the job of being a sex worker advocate that much harder. HIPS is on their side but it isn't easy. There are many people who feel the way the Prince George's County police officer felt on that night. Why are you condoning this? Clay explains that people have a tendency to judge the workers without looking at the human side of their profession. "I wanna believe that people are misinformed. It makes them uncomfortable to think about the nature of their [sex workers'] job. It doesn't matter whether they are doing it out of coercion or circumstance or limited choices. We want people to get the full picture."
HIPS offers counseling, crisis support, needle exchange, free HIV testing, counseling and referrals and support for transgender health services. "It's about more than condoms. They are saving their own lives. The condoms are just the tools. The better you feel about yourself the more empowered you feel and the more you'll take care of yourself," states Clay. Sex workers do what they do for survival. Demeaning them doesn't help the situation and won't make them go away. Cyndee Clay proclaims, "Respect is a human right."
Indeed it is, Ms. Clay.
If you need help from HIPS call the hotline number 1-800-676-HIPS
Wanna volunteer with HIPS? The next volunteer orientation is coming up in February. Click here for more details.