Street Wise

Cyndee Clay constantly walks the intersection of society and sex, survival and discrimination in an effort to uncover the humanity hidden by stigma

MW: What was your sort of career path at HIPS?

CLAY: First I was an outreach volunteer. And a hotline volunteer, and a crisis volunteer. Then I did a case-management internship. Then I ran the drop-in center. It’s a small nonprofit, right? [Laughs.] Then I came on as a case manager. Then there was this kind of weird time when there were three of us who were kind of left after the founding executive director left, so we all kind of ran everything. Then I did development work. I did an interim executive director position. I went back to development work. Then I came on as executive director officially in 2001.

MW: And what are the services HIPS provides?

CLAY: We provide pretty comprehensive services for anything that’s going to help people move along this path of health and wellness. We have in-house programs, which are run through our community center in Brentwood. Those include weekly support groups. We have daily maintenance groups for active drug users. We do case management, linkage to care and services, including HIV testing and drop-in syringe access. On the streets, we do pretty much the same thing. We have our outreach van, which is out during the day primarily for drug-user outreach; and Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. for mainly sex-worker outreach, with counseling, HIV testing, assistance if people have been victims of violence. And our bad-date sheet.

MW: ”Bad-date sheet”?

CLAY: Our bad-date sheet is a place where sex workers can report acts of violence against them. There’s not a lot of reporting that happens to law enforcement, so that bad-date sheet was started by a sex-work organization out of Portland, Ore., and they trained us and we adopted it.

MW: And condom distribution?

CLAY: We passed out nearly a million condoms last year.

MW: That’s a lot of condoms.

CLAY: It’s a lot of condoms. I like to think we were responsible for a lot of safer-sex by actually putting condoms in the hands of people who are probably about to use them.

MW: Describe the range of people who come to you.

CLAY: Because we’re extremely client-centered, it allows us to serve the diversity of individuals who have sex-work experiences. That’s your more traditional sex-work people, actively trading for enough money to get a hotel room for the night so they don’t have to sleep on the streets. They may be doing sex work to support drug issues they’re having, like just to get enough money to get drugs so they don’t get sick.

We have some escorts who both volunteer and access our services, in the sense that sex work isn’t necessarily a problem. They have a lot of other privilege and their lives aren’t chaotic. But they still face the same stigma and discrimination and issues that anyone who is involved in the sex industry can face because of the nature of the industry.

MW: Does HIPS offer much in the way of legal services?

CLAY: I wish we did. We don’t. We’re working on a couple legal projects right now. We do some legal referrals and trouble-shooting. Until just recently, we were running a pre-trial diversion program with the goal of reducing recidivism, specifically among transgender women involved in sex work. Unfortunately, the funding for that program was cut in October. So we’re not doing it right now.

MW: You mention transgender clients. When we talk about prostitution in D.C., anti-transgender discrimination is often part of that conversation. Can you go into that linkage?

CLAY: It’s a really needful conversation to have, but also problematic how issues around the trans community are often linked to prostitution. It’s a line we try to toe very carefully. We look at how the transgender community is economically disempowered, starting from young trans people having access to safe education spaces and to support, all they way up to workforce development and employment discrimination against transgender people. For many, when you have few other options, sex work is what you turn to in order to survive. That’s what we see with a lot of our trans clients who are doing sex work.

MW: Do you see the similar circumstances with sexual-minority youth?

CLAY: It’s definitely an issue that we see. Especially back when I was running the drop-in program and started the HIPS peer-education program. It was really designed to reach out to young people who were either transitioning or who had been kicked out of their homes because they’re gay and suddenly faced with, ”How am I going to eat?” We call it doing sex work by circumstance. It’s not necessarily that you have a pimp forcing you to be out on the streets. It’s like, ”I need to eat. I need a place to stay.”

Formal or informal sex trading is something young people do when they have few other options. I see that happening with all queer youth, not just trans youth.

MW: I’m reminded of the mayor’s office offering job training specifically to transgender residents, while there’s also a push in City Council for permanent ”Prostitution Free Zones.” There may not be a direct link, but you can make a connection nonetheless.

CLAY: Our official position on PFZs is that they have a lot of unintended consequences, not doing what we want them to do. It is a Band-Aid on a citywide issue – a Band-Aid that actually hurts people. We’re against prostitution-free zones for that reason. We’re really tying to bring the people most impacted by the zones into the community dialogue. I believe [we need] a space where residents and law enforcement and sex workers sit down and try to talk about what some of the real issues are.

Follow Will O'Bryan on Twitter @wobryan.