Located in the center of Washington D.C.’s H Street Corridor resides HIPS, a storefront placed in between a Boost Mobile and a building under construction. The HIPS building may be inconspicuous, the work that is being done there is doing is anything but unseen.
HIPS is a non-profit organization focusing on harm reduction that works to promote the health, rights, and dignity of individuals and communities impacted by sexual exchange and/or drug use due to choice, coercion, or circumstance. The services at HIPS seek to provide compassionate harm reduction, advocacy, and community engagement that is respectful, non-judgmental, and affirms and honors individual power and agency.
“Previously, HIPS was an acronym for ‘Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive,’” Sharese Mone, HIPS Peer Advocacy Fellow said. “But now, the term ‘prostitute’ is considered problematic and we’ve expanded our mission much beyond solely focusing on sex workers.”
At HIPS, Mone focuses on providing opportunities to the LGBTQ community – specifically to transgender women in D.C. She loves sharing her passion and working to cultivate understanding within the D.C. community. She is also a peer educator who enjoys empowering her community with information about housing, employment, HIV/AIDS care, hormone therapy, and transitions.
HIPS began as a resource for female sex workers in D.C. However, as the District evolved, HIPS did along with it and expanded widely into the LGBTQ community. HIPS relies heavily on their population of interns and volunteers to contribute to the many different services being offered.
Mary Pavia, a 21 year-old volunteer at HIPS, is originally from Minnesota. In order to be a volunteer at HIPS she had to complete 40 hours of direct service volunteer training about topics such as service provider privilege, crisis intervention, and harm reductionist tools for counseling clients about safer sex and safer drug use.
“In studying various diseases, health problems, and barriers to healthcare as a public health major, it is clear the burden of many of these issues disproportionately and unfairly affect low income, disenfranchised, and underserved populations,” Pavia said. “So, I reached out to volunteer at HIPS to engage with people impacted and involved with sexual exchange and/or drug use.”
HIPS began in 1993 as a cooperative extension service of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) solely focusing on young women on the streets. In 1996, they opened their doors in collaboration with an AIDS organization.
“It became clear that many of the ‘women’ that we were helping were not biological women,” Mone said. “So, it was kind of necessary to expand our services to incorporate the necessary care for transgender individuals.”
In 2009, HIPS adapted Safety Counts for transgender women and men to help increase self efficacy and reach risk reduction goals in their lives. During this time, HIPS also launched a pretrial Diversion Program for transgender women arrested for solicitation related offenses aimed to reduce incarceration and recidivism.
“Many people I work with are transgender-women of color, often sex workers or drug users,” Priva said. “Due to stigma and discrimination, these folks struggle to find non-judgmental health services, hindering their ability to live healthier lives.”
Volunteer likes Pavia are able to carry out street-based outreach, needle exchange, condom distribution, and harm reduction micro-counseling around D.C. twice per month from an overnight outreach van. Although the HIPS clients vary, all are impacted by some systemic oppression that may include sex, race, class, and ability.
“I believe the stigma and discrimination of trans-folks that leads to structural violence and police brutality of this community is a major problem,” Pavia says. “And the felt and enacted stigma that trans individuals face in the health sector has justifiably caused many transgender people to not feel comfortable to seek care.”
According to Mone, HIPS had 84 transgender support groups in 2014 and though she does not know the exact current number, it has largely increased over the last two and a half years.
“This is why transgender care is so necessary,” Pavia said. “This community needs to have affordable and accessible care without fear of judgment or discrimination.”