In Your Neighborhood

Renewing hope on the streets of Rhode Island

The newly merged program, Project Weber/RENEW, has partnered with Sojourner House to open the first shelter for human trafficking victims in Rhode Island who have decided to leave “the life”

By Colleen Daley Ndoye
Posted 1/2/17
The merged efforts of Project Weber/RENEW are working with men and women in the sex trade to provide both harm reduction [needle exchange, HIV testing, condom distribution, basic needs] as well as recovery-based services [referrals to substance abuse treatment, long-term case management, and recovery coaching]. The organization provides peer-based services that are more effective and culturally competent, reaching populations that would otherwise remain under-served.
What is the connection between sexual abuse, sexual violence, rape, homelessness and substance use? Does Rhode Island need to create a database that makes those connections more transparent to clinicians and law enforcement? Is there a way to measure the value of peer-based coaching and services outside of the clinical model of insurance reimbursement? Is there a better way to enforce licensing regulations around so-called gentlemens clubs in Providence and elsewhere?
In response to an interviewer’s inane question in 2015 about the merchandise depicting the slave outfit that she wore in the Star Wars’ “Return of the Jedi” film, the late Carrie Fischer had the most appropriate response: “…The character is wearing that outfit not because she’s chosen to war it. She’s been forced to wear it. She’s the prisoner of a giant testicle who has a lot of saliva going on and she does not want to wear that thing, and it’s ultimately that chain, which you’re now indicating is some sort of accessory to S&M, that is used to kill the giant saliva testicle.”

PROVIDENCE – Project Weber/RENEW is a merged not-for-profit organization of the two programs in Rhode Island serving sex workers and high-risk men and women, including the transgender community.

We have three sites, two drop-in centers [one primarily serving men and one primarily for women] in Providence, and an office in Pawtucket.

Project Weber was founded in 2008 by a former male sex worker, who was spurred to do so by his HIV diagnosis as well as the murder of sex worker Roy Weber. The organization was designed to reach out to the male sex worker population that he saw being stigmatized and ignored.

It remains the only organization in the country exclusively serving male sex workers.

Project RENEW was founded in 2006 in Pawtucket, as a partnership between social service agencies and the police, in order to reduce prostitution arrests in Pawtucket and Central Falls, and provide long-term, peer-based services to female sex workers and high-risk women.

Within the first two years being on the streets, Project RENEW had reduced the prostitution arrest rate in both cities by 90 percent.

Guiding principles
The two projects worked side-by-side in the state for years, providing many of the same services – street outreach, basic needs, HIV prevention and testing, case management, and referrals to substance abuse and behavioral health services – to mirrored populations, male and female sex workers.

Both had the same guiding principle: that peer-based services are more effective and culturally competent, reaching populations that would otherwise remain underserved.

In March of 2016, the two programs agreed to merge, in order to reduce costly administrative overhead, to increase opportunities for staff to train together and to learn from each other, and to better serve the transgender population, which had previously fallen through the cracks.

Weber/RENEW clients range in age, race, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Our staff reflects this diversity. Approximately 95 percent of clients have substance abuse issues, 70 percent are homeless, and a majority of clients also have mental health diagnoses, including PTSD, depression, and anxiety.

Likewise, 80 percent of our staff is in recovery, with the majority of staff having experienced homelessness, criminal justice involvement, and mental health crises. The most important facet of our work is the idea that anyone can go from client, to volunteer, to staff; in fact the majority of staff once walked in the shoes that the clients now wear.

Instilling hope
One of the missing pieces in many clients’ lives is hope. Many have lost hope that they can do anything but what they are doing right now. Many have learning disabilities, diagnosed and undiagnosed mental health issues, long-term substance abuse issues, and significant trauma from life on the street, or from childhood.

Often, when they do decide to leave “the life” there is no person that they can point to who has successfully made it out. For clients to see a friend who once was in jail beside them, and is now passing them a Narcan [overdose prevention medication] bottle, or asking them if they need a ride to detox, it is a powerful thing.

One of the most unique aspects of the merged organization is the fact that we provide both harm reduction [needle exchange, HIV testing, condom distribution, basic needs] as well as recovery-based services [referrals to substance abuse treatment, long-term case management, and recovery coaching]. These services are primarily funding through the Elton John AIDS Foundation and the R.I. Department of Health.

A spectrum of change
We like to call the organization a “spectrum” organization, because it works with clients all along the stages of change.

Clients who are not looking for recovery services can access our clothing closet, food, or needle exchange every day for years, and no judgment or time limit is put upon them.

Clients contemplating change might take advantage of our support groups [currently offered for both transgender and male sex workers] to connect with people who are also ambivalent about change, or those who have recently gotten out of the life and were struggling.

Finally, for clients who have decided to enter treatment, and were now faced with leaving the facility 30 days later with no home to go to, we connect people to both shelter services as well as pay for recovery housing on a limited basis.

Even a few weeks of recovery housing can be the foundation a client needs to achieve stability, including more permanent housing, employment.

Three new programs
The three newest programs we have initiated in 2016 are: the Transgender Outreach Project; the THEIA Project, in partnership with Sojourner House; and a PrEP research grant, funded through a partnership with Brown University.

The Transgender Outreach Project, funded by the RI Foundation’s Equity Action fund, has allowed us to hire peer transgender staffers who provide case management, outreach, and facilitate support groups for high-risk trans people.

The THEIA Project is the state’s first shelter for human trafficking victims. Sojourner House provides the housing, and Weber/RENEW peer staffers provide the case management.

Our PrEP research grant has allowed us to hire a case manager, who will be enrolling high-risk men on PrEP [the once-a-day pill to prevent HIV] and helping them reduce barriers to continued treatment.

Reducing stigma
Finally, one of the most important pieces of our work remains reducing stigma associated with sex work and sex workers. We work to show people the humanity in men and women with whom they might feel they have little in common.

We do this in very simple ways. For Christmas, we began an “adopt a client” program where donors can purchase a $25 gift that a client has chosen. Many organizations ask donors to adopt “families,” but very few request donors adopt single adults.

We were able to connect 32 clients with donors, and took pictures of the huge pile of gifts. Donors sponsored a party where staff and clients ate and listened to music together, and some of the clients spoke at the event about how they felt like Weber/RENEW was a home.

A room and a bed of one’s own
One client mentioned that the Weber/RENEW staff had found her an apartment after months of homelessness, and she was so grateful, but she was still sleeping on an air mattress.

After the party was over we told her the good news that we had a donor willing to buy her a bed. She cried, and the staffer cried with her. This was not just a victory for the client – that staffer had moved into her first apartment, after six years of homelessness, just three years ago. She remembered what it felt like to sleep in her own bed that first time, and being able to help someone else experience it, felt just as good.

Colleen Daley Ndoye is the Executive Director of Project Weber/RENEW.

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