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AIDS 2012: Meet Sarah

, by Reilly O'Neal

Sarah Casey at the HIPS booth (photo: Reilly O’Neal)

Sex workers make up one of the groups most impacted by HIV. In a presentation at AIDS 2012, Deanna Kerrigan of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health reported that an estimated 12% of female sex workers around the world are living with HIV; that’s 14 times higher than the overall HIV prevalence among women of reproductive age globally.

Male and transgender sex workers are also at increased risk for HIV infection, and Kerrigan noted that fewer than half of sex workers surveyed in multiple studies had access to even basic HIV prevention services.

The DC-based organization HIPS, short for Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive, is working to change that. The organization takes HIV prevention and harm reduction to the streets, offering free condoms, sterile syringes for people who inject drugs, safer sex counseling, and emotional support out of a mobile van that roams DC streets from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. on weekends. (Click here to read a first-hand account of one night in the HIPS van, over at TheBody.com.)

Volunteers also operate a hotline, run peer advocacy and support groups, refer folks for services, teach health literacy, and produce a “Bad Date” sheet to alert local sex workers about recent run-ins with dangerous clients. A glimpse at the HIPS weekly calendar shows the range of services and programs that help roughly 2,000 sex workers each year protect themselves from HIV and improve their health.

At a booth in the Global Village, HIPS intern Sarah Casey spoke with BETA about the real-world work she does, and why she does it.

BETA: What brought you to HIPS?

Sarah Casey: I found HIPS while I was working on a project in school; I was researching organizations in DC that work with marginalized populations like sex workers and intravenous drug users….From there, I just completely fell in love. I didn’t want to quit volunteering; I wanted to do more. So I became an intern this summer.

BETA: What do you do with the organization?

Sarah: Right now, I help manage our outreach office. I do daytime needle exchanges with clients who come in, I help answer hotline calls….I think it’s fantastic; I love real-world work.

I’m hoping to start working on our outreach with courthouses, prisons, and halfway houses to try and capture some of those populations that may be re-entering “civilian life”…and trying to meet up with criminal justice organizations that we may share clients with.

BETA: What’s the best thing about working with HIPS?

Sarah: The clients. I recently had one person tell me, “I love you guys! You’re always ready to help me. Some organizations aren’t like this; they’re not as open, they’re not as friendly. There are judgments and values attached with me coming to those places. You all aren’t like that, and I love you for it.” And you’re only response is, “We love you!” We really love our clients. They hold a very, very warm spot in our hearts.

BETA: Have you encountered anyone who asks why you do this work with these populations—why sex workers, why people who inject drugs? How do you answer those questions?

Sarah: My response is that these issues touch all of our lives. You might not use or practice sex work, but somebody you know may. We’re all people and we all deserve labor rights, we all deserve human rights, we all deserve medical rights. [This work] is addressing those value judgments and prejudices about people who do use or people who do engage in sex work. That’s what needs to be addressed.

Click here to learn more about HIPS and see how you can get involved.

Reilly O’Neal is a freelance writer and former editor of BETA.

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