People are generally not used to seeing a person wearing a clerical collar at 1:00 a.m. on a street corner distributing condoms and conversing with prostitutes. But in eight Chicago neighborhoods, such sightings are a regular occurrence. With programs in shelter and outreach, The Night Ministry (TNM) is engaged in a HIV/AIDS prevention ministry in which it seeks to be available, visible and present on the nighttime streets of Chicago.

When trying to meet basic human needs such as food and shelter, many of those we meet on the nighttime streets cannot conceive of the dangers of a disease that they cannot even see. Moreover, youth and young adults on the streets are profoundly reluctant to access traditional health systems. To be effective, we have found that preventative health education must be provided to them in a non-judgmental manner, in their own environment.

TNM sees HIV/AIDS prevention as a critical part of its outreach ministry. Our prevention model is based upon relationships wherein a level of mutual trust is cultivated between minister and parishioner. It is in the context of these relationships that issues of lifestyle and health can be addressed and education and counseling provided. The regularity of our presence on the streets allows on-going contact with our parishioners which results in our being able to do follow-up and follow-through on the information we provide.

In addition to distributing condoms and providing safer sex education, we encourage our parishioners to get tested for HIV. We offer counseling and referrals both to those who test positive, so that they can access appropriate care, and to those who test negative, so that they will be informed about how to continue to reduce the risk of infection.

TNM was founded in 1976 to serve the nighttime community in the north lake front area of Chicago by area churches who desired to find better ways to serve their communities. One nighttime minister was hired to listen to the needs and concerns of those individuals who gathered in all-night restaurants, in bars, and on street corners. Street counseling, companionship, crisis intervention, and service referrals were offered to lonely adults and troubled teens in the nighttime hours. Through this outreach, TNM has recognized the enormous and diverse needs which exist among the nighttime population, and TNM has come to be known on the streets as a trusted companion.

Today, TNM reaches more than 500 persons per month in eight Chicago neighborhoods with its shelter and outreach programs. TNM's Health Outreach Program (HOP) is housed in a 33 foot custom-made bus which hits the streets six nights a week providing health care and education to the nighttime street community. On an average night, 60 people stop by for conversation, food, counseling, health education or health care.

With our Street Outreach Ministry, four full time street ministers walk the nighttime streets, offering pastoral counseling and conversation to the people they meet. Outreach ministers leave the parked bus to visit people in restaurants, game rooms and on street corners. Their task is to build relationships with youth and young adults on the street and to invite them to the bus.

Outreach ministers also offer street counseling and HIV/AIDS education o people choosing not to visit the bus. The program's nurse and volunteers remain in the bus to greet youth and young adults. The bus serves as a mobile drop-in center and health clinic. In the front of the vehicle is a kitchenette for providing hospitality. In the center is a comfortable sitting area. In the rear is a small, private medical office with an exam table. When people stop by, the staff and volunteers build relationships and offer a snack and beverage. The nurse provides health education around the specific health issues which arise during the course of informal conversation. This method of education allows people -- particularly young people -- to feel comfortable and to discuss issues at their own pace. The goal is to empower people to take care of their own health needs.

Given the needs of street youth and prostitutes, the nurses emphasize health issues of HIV/AIDS prevention, substance abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy/parenting issues and self-esteem. While no one is denied service, HOP targets homeless youth and young adults age 10-30. The majority are economically disadvantaged and are involved in either drug dealing or the sex trade industry in order to survive. Almost all of those served experience society's low tolerance for persons labeled homeless, abused, neglected, HIV+, lesbian or gay. A primary means of income for these youth and young adults on the streets is prostitution.

TNM is involved in a number of collaborative projects aimed at HIV/AIDS prevention. HOP makes regular visits to three Chicago youth shelters, including our own Open Door Shelter and partners in our Youth Shelter Network, that have limited or no access to health care. HOP nurses provide health histories and physical exams. Each exam takes 30-40 minutes, thus allowing ample time for health education and referral for any needed follow-up services. At the shelters, outreach ministers also lead group discussions on health topics identified by the shelter staff.

TNM collaborates with a local organization called Genesis House to provide outreach to young women in prostitution. Genesis House staff meet women on the street, provide counseling and HIV education and refer them to the HOP bus for further services. Our staff provide hospitality, pastoral counseling, referral, health education, and health care. With a variety of professional and lay perspectives, staff from both agencies build relationships with young women in order to provide health education and promote options for leaving the street life.

In addition, we have recently formed a relationship with Teen Living Programs, a Chicago agency that also serves homeless youth. Their outreach workers accompany our staff one evening a week. Teen Living Programs staff meet youth on the street and refer them to the bus to visit with the nurse. This collaboration offers distrusting street youth a wider range of outreach staff with which to build an initial relationship. This collaboration allows HOP to meet more young people.

TNM has also explored collaborative efforts with Stop AIDS-Chicago and local congregations with HIV/AIDS ministries. TNM receives funding from the Chicago Department of Health to help fund our HIV/AIDS prevention ministry. Collaboration, along with building relationships with the nighttime street community where they congregate, we believe, accounts for the success of our ministry.

Editor's note: The [preceding] article was submitted to AIDS National Interfaith Network (ANIN) by Kevin Hamrick of the staff of ANIN, member The Night Ministry. If you would like INTERaction to feature your ministry's prevention programs, please send your article to Joseph P. McGinty c/o ANIN.