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  WINDY CITY TIMES

South Side's Village offers free legal clinic for sex workers
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond
2015-11-11

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In April, University of Chicago's Departments of Medicine & Public Health Sciences Associated Professor and Chicago Center for HIV Elimination Director Dr. John Schneider, MD, MPH, created a village on the city's South Side as a response to the dearth of social services available to the LGBTQ community there.

Schneider secured commercial space at 1525 E. 55th St. in Hyde Park. Then, a five-member staff immediately set about transforming The Village into a welcoming and accessible hub for linking LGBTQ people infected with or at risk from HIV to access supportive services.

The lobby area has a smart TV for individuals to be able to watch movies or play Xbox. The facility also includes a spacious conference room as well as three testing and counseling rooms. The staff have gone out of their way to make the setting more cozy than clinical, repainting the walls and raiding IKEA for its most comfortable couches.

Ricky Hill is the team lead for community outreach and engagement at The Chicago Center for HIV Elimination.

"Beyond HIV testing, treatment and prevention, we link folks into housing services," Hill explained. "We have partnerships with Chicago House and every Wednesday they have their TransSafe program out of our space for the transgender population. We have support groups for young men, transfeminine people, PrEP education and training and we're going to be launching a drop-in space. We're trying to build something really special down here."

"There really is a need for these kinds of services on the South Side because so many people go to the Howard Brown or the Center on Halsted on the North Side," Hill added. "This gives them something a little closer to home. We're trying to make it as community oriented as possible in terms of what the needs are."

To that end, The Village asked the Sex Workers Outreach Project of Chicago ( SWOP ) and the Community Activism Law Alliance ( CALA ) to hold a free legal clinic for individuals involved in sex work. The first of the clinics was held on Nov. 2.

Individuals who attend can safely and anonymously receive legal services ranging from advice and community legal education to representation if needed.

Timothy Myers is a staff attorney with CALA, which, according to its website, is dedicated to "community activism lawyering—a model of legal practice that brings lawyers and activists together in a collaborative pursuit to maximize their respective resources."

"Sex workers are not a geographically defined population," Myers told Windy City Times. "So while we have a walk-in clinic at a stable location with SWOP, we're also looking to have monthly outreach clinics where we go to different agencies or nonprofits around the city who we think may have a client base in need of our legal services. One of those organizations is The Village."

"In the eyes of the law, there is definitely a stigma attached to being a sex worker," Myers explained. "We see that there's a need for both criminal defense and civil law representation for this population. So the areas of laws that we practice with the SWOP clinic are criminal defense, police misconduct, criminal records, immigration, family law, housing, labor and employment and really any area in which we see that someone's sex worker status is affecting their case; we want to provide representation."

Hill agreed that the stigma attached to sex-work has made outreach indispensable for those who make their livings with it. "We want to be as consistent as we can so that people know they can come to a space that is really there to help them as best as we can," Hill asserted.

"Part of what CALA wants to do is educate the community," Myers said. "So we give 'know your rights presentations' for sex workers—how to invoke the right to remain silent, the necessity of affirmatively invoking the right to an attorney. We also give practical advice. 'If you get arrested do you have a plan in place? An attorney you can call?' On top of that, we advise people as to what happens during a court procedure—what a pretrial and trial look like, what potential offers are, what they mean and how they affect you. Can you expunge your records? We really walk them through the entire criminal process."

Myers noted a new diversion court for sex workers launched in Cook County in May 2015. "The idea is to focus less on incarceration and focus on alternative sentences that put sex workers into diversion programs that allow for expungement in criminal records," he said. "If you think of someone who is a transgender individual, there's already not enough resources for them. There are populations of people where these are survival situations. I don't know if the diversion program adequately recognizes that reality. From a legal perspective it's a great deal but from the perspective of addressing the problem, I don't know if it is all that effective."

Myers added that there was very little recourse for transgender individuals who are subject to police harassment or profiling of their gender identity in violation of the Chicago Police Department ( CPD )'s 2015 policy against that. "We still see a lot of horrifying treatment of transgender individuals by the police," he said. "The options for recourse are very slim unfortunately."

Beyond its research activities, The Village offers at least a temporary safe-haven for transgender sex workers and others from such treatment and the knowledge that someone has their backs.

"We believe that it takes an entire community to care for each other," Hill said. "We are all responsible for one another. That is within the framework of The Village."

For more information about The Village and the legal clinic, email rhill3@medicine.bsd.uchicago.edu . Info about CALA is at www.calachicago.org, and SWOP Chicago's website is redlightchicago.wordpress.com .


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