Help with health comes to Block

City, nonprofit group work together against drug use, sexual disease

Sun Follow-up

July 31, 2008|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,Sun Reporter

Under glowing neon signs, amid strippers, barkers and a nervous parade of humanity, something unprecedented is happening on The Block in Baltimore.

It's called public health.

Maria Slechter, 22, totes a bag of clean hypodermic needles she provides to dancers and patrons, who turn in used ones. "They're shooting heroin and cocaine, I guarantee they are," says Slechter, wearing a black off-the-shoulder dress that helps her blend into the crowd.

She is part of a group of outreach workers who since early May have descended on the region's densest concentration of nude dance clubs. On Thursday nights, those who populate the Block can receive free condoms or get tested for HIV, syphilis or hepatitis C. They can also get referrals to drug treatment programs or take steps to qualify for Medicaid.

The effort, a joint project of the Baltimore City Health Department and the nonprofit Sisters Together and Reaching, addresses what's long been an open secret. Among strippers, bouncers and public health authorities, there is wide acknowledgment that drug addiction and sexual activity are common among women who perform on the Block.

"A lot do drugs and burn bridges with their families," said Steven Martin, a tattooed bouncer who stood outside the Circus club last Thursday.

To passers-by, he cried, "Come on guys, 16 ladies!"

Is sexual contact permitted in the clubs? "Legally, no," he said. "What a girl does in a lap dance for extra money, I don't know. I'm not naive either.

"Probably 99.9 percent have children and probably 90 percent are addicted to some substance, whether heroin or crack," said Martin, adding that the women range in age from 18 to 24.

His estimates, of course, are guesswork. But his may be as good as anyone's because nobody has done a scientific study. But that is changing.

Jacky Ruben, a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, accompanies the outreach workers on Thursdays. She holds private interviews with dancers to develop a profile of their lifestyles, including drug use, prostitution, family and finances.

She said her supervisor, public health professor Susan Sherman, asked her to search for any scientific or sociological literature that had been written on The Block. None existed.

Though she is early into her study, Ruben said, she is gaining a stark impression.

"There's a lot of drug use, lots of oral, vaginal sex going on in the clubs," she said. The good news, if there is any, is that most report that they protect themselves with condoms. Disturbingly, many say they use clean needles but pass them on to others, risking the spread of disease.

Along the curb was parked a white STAR van, where dancers took blood tests and received condoms and other supplies.

The program marks the city's second effort this year to improve the health of women who sell sex, a group that experts view as core transmitters of HIV. A series published in The Sun last November explored the role of prostitutes in spreading the AIDS virus.

The Block came into its heyday after World War II, when it became a magnet for sailors, businessmen and other thrill-seekers. It featured prominent performers like burlesque queen Blaze Starr and spilled onto numerous streets. In recent years, the zone has contracted, occupying a one-block stretch of East Baltimore Street along with a handful of addresses on side streets.

Slechter became acquainted with the scene before her role as an outreach worker. She said she once got off a bus at 3 in the morning to buy a slice of pizza and soon joined the street life, attracted by its edginess, texture and the attention lavished on a young woman walking past.

So far, the city health department has distributed 1,300 clean needles on the strip, an average of about 130 a night, according to deputy health commissioner Richard Matens. STAR, a group with a long history in disease prevention, has tested scores of women for HIV and found three who were newly positive.

Chris Serio-Chapman, who directs the city's harm reduction program, said the needle-exchange program has traditionally focused on high-risk neighborhoods where most customers are well into middle age. Some, including sex-trading men and women, have been addicted for decades.

But The Block's dancers are younger, she said. With shorter drug and sexual histories, they are less likely to be infected. With any luck, their drug habits are easier to interrupt.

"We're targeting the young people because they've really eluded us," she said. "A lot of girls who are dancing are prostituting. What I've noticed is that some still have some of their beauty. But they have more frequent sex than at Monroe and Ramsay," she said, pointing to a corner in Southwest Baltimore that is a regular needle-exchange site.

At first, the health department operated alone, parking a van wherever it could find a spot on the traffic-clogged strip. Workers found the demand so great that customers lined up and grew restive. That's when it asked STAR for help.

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