Several organizations in Kensington offer aid to sex workers who seek it. For some, they provide much more than just that.


Wrapped in a blanket under the El, a woman named India* walked down Kensington Avenue.

“A lot of the girls hang out around Prevention Point,” she said. “I’ll take you there.”

The “girls” she was referencing are women who do sex work — often, but not always — as a means to maintain their drug use.

Prevention Point, a harm reduction organization in Kensington, is just one of many nonprofits in Philadelphia that does outreach for women who do sex work and also experience sexual violence or have substance use disorders.

Project Safe is another.

Jordan Holycross is a volunteer who does outreach for Project Safe, which is a non-profit that provides women-centered services in Kensington. Both Project Safe and Prevention Point have services ranging from handing out safe sex kits to hosting a weekly event for women in the community called Ladies’ Night, where women are able to get clean clothes, shower and spend time together in a safe space.

The kits include things such as condoms, sanitary wipes, clean water, and tourniquets — which are bands used to stop the blood flow through a vein — are given to people in the area as a form of reducing the harms associated with sex work and drug use.

“I think that [having a substance-use disorder] creates more barriers for folks who need help,” Holycross said. “Whatever stigma that is put on people going through addiction is more intense if you’re also doing sex work.”

Also, according to Holycross, since sex work is illegal, many sex workers refrain from reporting violent crimes against them because of fear of retribution. And sex workers often face barriers regarding access to addiction treatment or steady employment because of their criminal records.

People still believe addiction is a choice, and they keep saying people should just stop doing these things,” said Sarah Gawricki, the community liaison for SOL Collective, a harm reduction organization. “We have a lot of support, both [SOL Collective and Project Safe] do, but it’s still a battle for the public to believe we’re not enabling drug users or sex workers to keep working.”

Gawricki said that SOL Collective, through their outreach, is able to offer not only supplies for women but also ways for them to enter treatment.

“We do outreach every Sunday,” Gawricki said. “We give out things that might help people that might be doing street sex work. If they want to go into treatment, we try to help them get into a 24-hour program.”

But while many street-based sex workers do have substance use disorders, that’s not always the case, Holycross said.

“There’s sort of this myth of street-based sex workers who maybe use drugs … like, ‘You’re doing this for the money — you’re doing this for your fix,’” Holycross said. “These are people’s lives, and people’s lives are more complicated than that.”

“We do outreach every Sunday. We give out things that might help people that might be doing street sex work. If they want to go into treatment, we try to help them get into a 24-hour program.”

— Sarah Gawricki, SOL Collective

Funding

On a Wednesday, there was a small line of women outside the New Day Drop-In Center, which is located just a few feet from Somerset Station. A woman named Kelly* stood outside the entrance.

Kelly, who has experience as a sex worker and addiction, understands the dangers of street-based sex work.

“Of course there’s violence,” Kelly said. “It’s everywhere. But this organization is a good one. The people are so passionate.”

The center, which is a non-profit organization run by the Salvation Army, provides help for women in the Kensington area in the form of a safe space that offers food, clothing, and legal aid. They also train all staff members to use Narcan — a brand name for naloxone — a nasal spray used to reverse the effects of an overdose.

Susan Jones, a program manager for Police Assisted Diversion (PAD) — a program that reduces recidivism for individuals that are prosecuted for prostitution — was formerly the coordinator for the center.

According to Jones, New Day is a low-barrier service, meaning that they do not demand a lot of identifying information about people in order to provide them with help. The center wants to provide safety without many requirements, she said. Individuals who seek help generally just have to identify as female or be comfortable in a female-identifying space.

However, as far as funding for New Day and other organizations similar to it, the non-profits sometimes have a difficult time acquiring financial support and donations. But according to Jones, they always make it work.

“I can’t put my finger on why we have a lack of funding,” Jones said. “I don’t necessarily think its because people don’t support our work. I think it’s more of a lack of awareness.”

Jones also said that a local church provides a lot of donations for the center, as well as a few other donors.

According to Gawricki, she feels that if addiction was presented as a real disease, it might be easier to garner public support and receive more funding.

“It’s a hard thing that people are fighting in Kensington,” Gawricki said.

“These people are incredibly resilient. They’ve endured a lot of things, and at the end of the day they are sharing coats and meals with each other. It’s a remarkable group of folks we get to work with on a daily basis.”

— Susan Jones, Police Assisted Diversion

Funding

In 2010, a serial killer named the “Kensington Strangler” was believed to have murdered at least three women — all with substance use disorders and a background in sex work. The killer targeted those in commercial sex work which raised a lot of concerns about sexual violence on the Avenue.

According to Jones, in the aftermath of those murders, there was no safe space on the Avenue for women. After the incidents, there was a lack of uproar about the safety of women who do sex work, she said.

“No one ever deserves to be marginalized or rejected,” she said. “The need was for a safe space of acceptance.”

“These people are incredibly resilient,” Jones added. “They’ve endured a lot of things, and at the end of the day, they are sharing coats and meals with each other. It’s a remarkable group of folks we get to work with on a daily basis.”

*Names marked with an asterisk are those of people who requested we use their first name only due to the sensitivity of the subject matter.