Saturday, October 1, 2011

AIDS education for teen prostitutes

Here is an article I did 15 years ago on heroic efforts by the legendary harm-reduction educator Edith Springer to bring young prostitutes in New York City into the AIDS prevention field.

Some of the the NYPAEC outreach workers were able to stop prostituting themselves. One wound up becoming a salesman for a pie company. Others were not so luck. The gregarious Michael Links, a charming hustler who used to work the bathrooms at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, died of a crack-induced seizure. Luscious, a transvestite hooker who useed to work the Meat Packing District, was later murdered by a john.

February 1, 1996

By Dylan Foley
Michael Links started hustling and prostituting himself on the Manhattan piers when he was fourteen to support his crack habit. Five years ago, at the age of nineteen, he was recruited to do outreach work in AIDS prevention education among his fellow hustlers on the prostitution strolls.

The group that recruited him, the New York Peer AIDS Education Coalition (NYPAEC), was started in 1990 to reach an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 teenage hustlers, runaways, and prostitutes in New York City. Working out of a donated church space, social worker Edith Springer, the NYPAEC founder, offered stipends of $20 a week and free meals to her twelve original peer educators. "We are educators - we show them choices, but we don't tell them what the goals are," says Springer. "We say to our clients, `You are great and you need to survive. Let us show you how to do things safely.'" NYPAEC provides safe-sex information and condoms for prostitutes and other teenagers at risk of contracting HIV, and promotes safe drug use, including clean needles.

At present, there are twenty-four outreach workers, men and women ranging in age from sixteen to twenty-six. They include whites, African Americans, Latinos, straights, gays, and transvestites. Many of them are still hustling, and some are active drug users. Two of the group's original outreach workers died of AIDS, and some current members are HIV-positive.

Michael Links has been doing peer education for NYPAEC for five years. His experience with the group has led to a job as a caseworker for a community clinic, though he still hustles part-time. Besides safe-sex information, he gives other advice: "I tell people not to go with a `date' who is drunk or drugged, and not to work while you're high."

Luscious is an articulate, twenty-year-old male prostitute who is an outreach worker NYPAEC. "I started turning tricks when I was thirteen," he said. "I became a peer educator because I see so many HIV-infected people on the stroll. Even now, there are people who don't know how to use condoms." He says many of his male clients wear their wedding rings when they pick him up.

Luscious works in drag in Manhattan's meatpacking district. He gives out condoms to his fellow prostitutes, as well as others. "When I get on the subway, I act real loud and carry my condoms where they can be seen. Young people ask for them."

Besides training other outreach workers, NYPAEC also provides group support sessions for them. "In group, I feel that I can discuss anything because people have been through everything. I feel like I am supported 110 percent," says Luscious.

Though NYPAEC has three full-time staff, all decisions are made by vote among all the members. The peer educators are still paid only $20 a week and are required to make twenty outreach contacts a week. They also help run the NYPAEC office, which is near the meatpacking district.

Samuel "Poely" Johnson III, twenty-two, has been a peer educator and outreach worker for two years. He ran away from a bad foster-care situation when he was eighteen. "I was eating out of garbage cans and living under train platforms," he says.

"The work is exhilarating and rewarding, but can be depressing," says Poely. "I do a lot of suicide interventions. Often, people need someone to talk to more than anything else." Poely has plans to start an HIV/AIDS chat room for teens on the Internet.

NYPAEC has found that funding is hard to come by for a program that uses former and current hustlers to do its outreach. "The head of a major foundation told me, `I think the work you are doing is great, but my foundation is too conservative to fund you,"' NYPAEC founder Springer says.

"A very high proportion of the kids we work with have HIV. They have a real sense of fatalism - they know they are going to die because they are constantly exposed to death through AIDS and violence. The powers that be don't really give a damn about them."

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