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Saving lives, one woman at a time

Tracey McCormick wears a white do-rag, a basketball jacket and a grateful expression. Her neighborhood of boarded-up houses, rife with drug addiction and prostitution, is short on warm comforts.

But on Thursdays before the sun rises, she can now count on finding a van parked on the same spot off Harford Road, a generator purring to ensure a toasty interior. There, a staff of women greet her with hot chocolate, granola bars and medical referrals.

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"I look so forward to seeing you folks," said McCormick, 41, sipping from a mug in the van's breakfast nook. "It makes my day, for real."

Last month, the Baltimore City Health Department launched its first program aimed at curbing prostitution and related health hazards, which include HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

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The program, operated from a city needle-exchange van, serves two neighborhoods known for a sex trade that many addicted women rely upon to pay for drugs, food and shelter.

The van visits the East Baltimore location on Thursdays and appears in Southwest Baltimore at South Monroe and Ramsay streets on Tuesdays. Hours are 6:30 a.m. to 9 a.m.

Outreach workers Shirldene Brown and Melanie Reese walk loops around the neighborhoods, hoping to draw in women who are looking for drugs or sex customers who might be driving to or from work. Women visiting the van can get tested for HIV, exchange dirty needles for clean ones or pick up supplies including alcohol swabs and lip balm.

The initiative is called WOW, for Women Outreaching to Women, and includes health and drug-treatment referrals. But to the Health Department official who conceived it, the program is all about starting a conversation that might eventually put women on the right course.

"Nobody can save any one person, but we might be able to give them choices where they can do that themselves," said Chris Serio-Chapman, who says she came up with the idea last summer.

Women who sell sex are considered core transmitters of HIV because of their high infection rates and multiple partners. Compounding the problem are their male customers, who often refuse to use condoms, The Sun reported in a series in November.

The report examined how prostitution contributes to Baltimore's severe HIV/AIDS epidemic. At last count, the metropolitan area had the nation's second-highest rate of new AIDS cases.

After publication of the series, the city Health Department convened a committee to identify the needs of sex-trading women and strategies for helping them. The group, made up of four nonprofits that serve female sex workers, has met twice.

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"We're sort of in this brainstorming period," said Serio-Chapman, who oversees the committee. "Once we decide on a course of action, it will move pretty quickly."

One of the four nonprofits is Power Inside, which is also the city's partner in staffing WOW. The group, based on East 25th Street, helps female prison inmates, ex-offenders and others engaged in drug use and prostitution. Jacqueline Robarge, the group's director, is a regular presence on the van.

She is familiar to many of the women who stop by. They call out her name and embrace her when they meet. McCormick recognized her from a prison support group that Robarge runs.

"We're always here to problem-solve, to be a cheerleader," Robarge said of the new program.

WOW's budget of $68,000 is enough to carry it through June, and the Health Department is applying for a grant to continue longer. Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein has said finding money for the initial period was "an easy call" because of Serio-Chapman's interest, as well as The Sun's inquiries.

One aim is to connect women to treatment programs offering buprenorphine, an opioid substitute that blocks the craving for heroin. Once off heroin, women might stop selling sex, officials say.

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But treatment works only if patients show up. So far, WOW has referred 13 women, but only one has appeared consistently enough to be enrolled.

"It's seems so easy, just asking them to go to the doctor and get treatment, but for them, it's really hard to change," said Serio-Chapman. "We're just going to keep coming back and encouraging them."

McCormick, who has lost custody of her two young children, hasn't shown up for two appointments despite a wish list of things she'd like to accomplish.

"Once I get my identification card, I want to get a job, then a home, then my kids back," she said, warming up on a frosty morning.

McCormick, 41, said she's resorted to prostitution to raise money for drugs, but not as often as many of her neighbors.

Moments later, audible sobs rang out as a woman rounded the corner. Samantha Holey, 41, explained that she'd heard about the van being in the area and panicked when she lost her way en route to it.

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Holey said she'd been using heroin for 21 years, prostituting at times to pay for her drugs, but she'd never been in a treatment program. A week earlier, she bought buprenorphine on the street and found that it eased her cravings. Now she wants to receive it in drug treatment.

"I'm feeling normal, like myself again," said Holey, who said she has lived in an abandoned building for the past six years.

Susan Sherman, an epidemiologist with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, will evaluate the van program to determine, among other things, its success in reducing risk factors for HIV, such as drug abuse and prostitution.

"It's sort of a drop in the bucket in a sea of a lot of despair," Sherman said. "But people underestimate the meaning of a smile and a hot cup of coffee in the lives of people without much."

jonathan.bor@baltsun.com



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