How Erin Wingo Helps Sex Workers & Disadvantaged Washington D.C. Residents One Van Ride At A Time

At least once a month, Erin Wingo takes to the streets of Washington D.C. in a van. From 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., Wingo and other HIPS volunteers operate a mobile response unit that aids sex workers and drug users by offering harm reduction services. On any given night, Wingo and her fellow volunteers hand out safe sex supplies, provide sterile needles, offer referrals to community resources, and supply micro-counseling to District residents who make their living through the sex industry. For Wingo, advocating for and establishing better public health is a passion that's been 30 years in the making.

"I grew up in California in the '90s with feminist parents, and they acted in queer circles even in my youth, so issues related to areas like women's health and LGBT health have always been permeating in my mind," Wingo says.

The mobile response van that Wingo works in is only one branch of the larger services that HIPS provides, from an emergency hotline to a crisis center that operates in the daytime. Both HIPS and Wingo — a masters candidate in the Department of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore — have similar missions that drive them: to minimize the harmful effects of HIV/AIDS, sexual discrimination, poverty, drug use, and violence among the nation's disadvantaged. But though Wingo is passionate about enacting change and bettering the lives of others, the path in which she would do so wasn't always clear to her.

When Wingo moved to the D.C. area in 2007 to find work, the city was experiencing an HIV and AIDS epidemic. According to The Washington Post, by 2009, 3 percent of D.C. residents were infected. Through daily headlines and word of mouth, Wingo became more aware of the epidemic, as well as the substantial health factors impacting residents of the District — from high mortality rates and drug use, to rampant violence within the sex worker industry.

"The epidemic was all over the headlines, and when you read a little further you could see how it was just a drop in the bucket in terms of the problems facing so many people," Wingo says. Looking for a way to give back and help, Wingo eventually learned about HIPS. At the time, Wingo was working as a program assistant at the National Academy of Sciences. In her position, Wingo would compile research and data to support reports and studies about the effects of nuclear radiation.

But although she was working in a research field, after six years the position wasn't as fulfilling anymore. As she came to understand more about HIPS and the challenges facing public health, Wingo slowly began to realize that she wanted to change her direction in life. "I worked for a long time before going back to school, and with most people there's usually some catalyst event or something that inspires someone in a particular moment. I don't have that storyline," Wingo says.

For the past year and a half, Wingo has worked on completing her master's degree, which focuses specifically on the intersection of sexual and reproductive health and rights, with LGBT health and gender-based violence. "There are a lot of intersections of identity that we encounter. Particularly individuals of color and low income individuals tend to overlap and be hit the hardest by a lot of these things," Wingo says.

This overlap between ethnicity, sexuality, and income level can be seen time and time again, such as with the D.C. HIV epidemic. A 2012 report by the D.C. Department of Health showed that among heterosexual black women living in the poorest D.C. neighborhoods, the infection rate had doubled from 6.3 percent to 12.1 percent in the previous two years.

Facts like these are what provide the motivation that keeps Wingo going, and fuel her desire to continue volunteering with organizations like HIPS, which utilize a client-based harm reduction approach to limiting HIV infection, and protecting sex workers.

"Harm reduction refers to a health services philosophy of meeting people where they're at, so you're supporting individuals to reduce their risks based on their individual needs and abilities," Wingo says. Even small efforts — like encouraging drug users to use new needles when injecting, or urging sex workers to send their location to a friend when meeting a client, can have substantial impacts on alleviating risk and reducing harm.

It's a model that has had success. "We have helped more than 500 people get off the streets and hundreds get away from abusive situations that were forcing them to stay on the streets," executive director of HIPS Cyndee Clay told PR Week this summer. "In the past three years, we have also helped people transition away from being homeless and HIV positive into securing housing."

And part of HIPS' success is dependent on the dedication and passion of the volunteers that staff the organization. According to Wingo, HIPS volunteers like herself must undergo approximately 40 hours of training. This education teaches volunteers how to provide microcounseling — support and counseling that is offered on a small, limited scale, and helps to establish trust and connections between the individuals they serve. And sometimes this training is also utilized to help the volunteers themselves cope. According to Wingo, hearing the ordeals that some sex workers go through can be emotionally straining.

"You'd be surprised by the degree of violence we're talking about. You hear individual stories of what they go through, and it's very upsetting," says Wingo, who prefers not to provide details due to the sensitive nature of her work. "But the way people normalize violence is almost more upsetting. People have been close to being tortured and killed, and you speak to them two hours later and it's like nothing. And it's because they're used to it."

When asked why she advocates for sex workers, Wingo responds with a question: "Why wouldn't you?"

"They're people. On the most fundamental level we are talking about human beings, citizens of this country, who, because of choice or circumstances, went into an industry that puts them at enhanced risk from all sorts of things — from sexually transmitted disease and violence, to discrimination and stigma."

For Wingo, knowing the details of these individual's experiences makes it difficult to not want to take action. "It's hard not to care about these things," Wingo says. "My own experience, both as a woman and as someone who has been exposed to things like sexual violence, is what motivates me and keeps me invested in trying to find solutions."

This all encompassing desire to learn more and provide aid goes beyond an interest — it's a passion, driving her life. Even in her downtime, Wingo seeks out books that challenge conventions about gender and race. And despite demanding coursework and consuming internships, Wingo continues to commute from Baltimore to D.C. to get in the van and set out to help — one person at a time.

Images: Erin Wingo (3)