In Baltimore, New Ambitions on the Street

Down a faded block in Southwest Baltimore, seven women stroll. Abused and debased, arrested and addicted, they have all worked as prostitutes. But this morning, they are not selling sex or scoring drugs. Instead, they are swinging blue shopping bags, filled with packets and pamphlets, for every storekeeper and wraith and john they meet. "You want some condoms, baby?" Regina Castillo asks a passing man.

Founded in 1996, YANA (You Are Never Alone) has a mission to promote the "collective healing and survival" of women involved in prostitution, and is one of the few places in the region where women "in the life" can find help that specifically addresses their needs. In the District of Columbia, those involved in the sex industry can turn to a decade-old group called HIPS -- Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive. HIPS runs an outreach van, a hotline and AIDS education program.

This spring, YANA's work evolved when seven "condom ladies" completed a 10-session AIDS education program for high-risk women called the SISTA (Sistas Informing Sistas about Topics on AIDS) Project. Offered with the help of a $52,000 grant from the Maryland AIDS Administration, the program took the women off the street and gave them time to explore feelings about themselves. They focused on self-esteem. They practiced behavior management and coping skills. The program ended with a call to go out and spread the message.

Baltimore is a major focus for the Maryland AIDS Administration, because 12,373 people in the city are infected with the virus, said Liza Solomon, the agency's director. The city "contributes more than half the HIV and AIDS cases in the state," she said. The state grant has provided enough supplies and money to carry YANA's graduates through most of the summer. Each of the women receives $10 per outreach session. The money is nice, but even better, says Cassie Gibson, 49, is the feeling that today, "I did something besides running to the dope man."

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