In November, Sex Workers and Allies Network (SWAN) unveiled a new mobile-outreach van. Our street-based outreach team distributes free harm reduction supplies throughout New Haven, Connecticut. We serve survival sex workers—those who rely on sex work to provide basic needs like food and shelter—and/or people who use drugs.
The new van allows our team to expand its service delivery and travel beyond its usual New Haven Green standby area, where outreach workers walk the streets to connect with sex workers and people who use drugs. It’s been a vital part of our ability to adapt our work to the pandemic.
Our outreach workers take the van throughout the city to “hot spots” in an effort to prevent as many overdoses as we can. We distribute supplies such as sterile syringes, naloxone and fentanyl tests. Street-based outreach is also when we collect information about the community’s basic needs—winter clothing, hygiene items and food. The van also allows SWAN to provide accompaniments to medical appointments, and for HIV, STIs and hepatitis C testing.
Many organizations and community groups have slowed down their outreach efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic. Shelters for people experiencing homelessness have decreased capacity due to new restrictions—forcing people who previously had access to shelter and food to move into tents or sleep outside, and placing our most vulnerable, like survival sex workers, at even greater risk.
We like to say we’re “building the bike as we ride it.”
Yet the van has allowed SWAN to expand harm reduction services from our original location at the New Haven Green to over 20 neighborhood corners. It’s allowed us to expand our hours, too; our outreach workers operate on call, which helps us reach a greater number of people. Our naloxone trainings have slowed during the pandemic—even though they’re more necessary than ever—and the van is helping us to facilitate more free trainings to the community. We like to say we’re “building the bike as we ride it.”
We’ve been serving needs including mental health, substance use, housing, employment and health care needs since 2017. SWAN believes in meeting people where they are at—we seek out those in need of harm reduction services, rather than waiting for them to come into the syringe service program (SSP). During the pandemic especially, the van is a vital tool. It’s helping us continue to give voice to a population that is often silenced and forgotten.
Valuing Lived Experience
During the COVID-19 public health crisis, sex workers have more than ever been subjected to brutal conditions, and been left out of government protections. Sex workers deserve a voice, and the chance to live safe, equitable and dignified lives. When the needs of people who sell sex are not met, it is injustice, a human rights issue.
SWAN members and staff have vital lived experience that helps build trust and a unique connection to folks who sell sex and/or use drugs. We acknowledge the expertise of each SWAN member has gained through their work, rather than dismissing them for it.
Systemic racism and failed policies that incarcerate people are at the root of the issues we’re seeking to address. For too long, punitive criminalization of sex work and drug use has discouraged access to SSPs. Prohibition is of course financially costly to the general public, who foot the bill for police, courts and incarceration for a public health problem that could be better managed with harm reduction. But the biggest cost is the lives lost, and the impact those losses leave on family, friends and communities.
People know what they need. All you have to do is ask them.
SWAN is a movement of people working together to create a healthier and safer community by allowing for the education, training and empowerment of our members. We believe that people impacted need to be part of SWAN’s decision-making processes, and part of every decision impacting sex workers.
Human life is precious, and each person has a story. We must treat sex workers and people who use drugs with the same respect and dignity as everyone else. People know what they need. All you have to do is ask them.
Photograph courtesy of SWAN