Safe Sex in the City

Julie Ost’s volunteer work earned her a “hero” profile on Channel 9 News.

May 08, 2010

By day Julie Ost, M.P.H. ’09, is the executive coordinator for the GW Cancer Institute. But at least one night a month she volunteers to work an overnight shift for local nonprofit HIPS, venturing out in some of D.C.’s worst neighborhoods to counsel and support the city’s street sex workers.

It’s volunteer work that Ms. Ost has done for more than three years through HIPS, which has a mission of helping individuals engaged in sex work lead healthier lives. She serves on the nonprofit’s board and volunteers in a variety of capacities—none more intense than the mobile outreach program.

"We drive slowly around neighborhoods where sex workers typically are with our lights on. We talk to people and offer them free condoms or candy," says Ms. Ost. "We try to use safe sex tools or even hot chocolate to bring people to our van so we can start a conversation."

Volunteers also offer clean syringes, distribute information about safety and how to get help if needed, and hand out “bad date sheets” to report violent or otherwise abusive partners. The unit goes out three nights a week, Thursday to Saturday, 9 p.m. to 5 a.m.

Ms. Ost says it’s impossible to quantify how many sex workers there are in D.C.-- “it’s transient, underground and illegal.” The mobile unit typically encounters 50 to 100 sex workers a night, primarily women and transgender women but also some men as well. Ninety percent are African American, she says.

“These people are survivors,” says Ms. Ost. “They often experience a tremendous amount of violence and are homeless and/or drug addicts. They are also often amazing, resilient people.” Most, she says, are poor and work for food, shelter or other necessities. “They do whatever they need to do,” she says.

The work caught the attention of Channel 9 News and reporter Kristen Fisher, who spent a night with the unit. Ms. Ost and two of her co-workers were featured on the program’s “Heroes Central” segment on Dec. 10. “We were honored to be given a forum accessible to the general public that highlights the harm reduction services we provide in a tangible way so people can better understand our mission of ‘meeting people where they are at,’“ says Ms. Ost.

The mobile outreach program is how HIPS reaches the majority of its clients, but the nonprofit also offers support groups, peer education programs, socials, a community newsletter and “quickies”--crash courses to teach safe skills, says Ms. Ost. HIPS has been headquartered in Adams Morgan but is moving to Northeast D.C. in January to be closer to the neighborhoods where its clients live and work.

“My passion is public health,” says Ms. Ost. “I’ve learned how difficult other people’s circumstances can be and the reasons why they do what they do. I’ve also learned it’s incredibly important to be nonjudgmental and help however I can.”

Student Life