Established in Philadelphia in 2004, Project SAFE is an all-volunteer grassroots organization providing advocacy and support for women working in street economies. SAFE’s mission is to promote human rights-based public health among women working in the sex and drug trades on the street in Philadelphia*. SAFE is an organization dedicated to ensuring the health, safety and survival of women on the street by providing advocacy, education and support using a harm reduction model. SAFE seeks to reduce the spread of HIV, hepatitis C and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among working women, promote health and safety by empowering women with relevant information and resources, and connect women to programs and services which are appropriate to their needs and interests.
*While sex work and substance use are not always co-occurring (but they can be) we work with women engaged in both, as the sex and the drug trades are criminalized similarly, with an emphasis on policing over public and personal health.
Why We Exist:
The primary problem that SAFE seeks to ameliorate is the fact that women who work in street economies have many unmet medical and social service needs. Although there are many groups and organizations in Philadelphia that provide the very services women say they want, these organizations are often unknown to and/or inept at providing services to SAFE’s constituents. This is not a new problem. An overwhelming need for accessible and non-judgmental services for the women who are the most criminalized, stigmatized and ostracized in our city has existed for far too long. The population that we work with and for is largely at an economic, educational and social disadvantage. Barriers such as illiteracy, lack of health insurance, legal problems (such as bench warrants), mental illness, mistrust of authority figures and service providers, and chaotic drug use are all factors which prevent women from accessing services to meet their basic needs. SAFE acts as a supportive and educational resource for these women to begin closing the gap.
Currently, the strategy that SAFE employs centers on becoming more established in the community in order to build a network of women. By raising awareness of the problems women in the sex trade face in the general community, we seek to lower the stigma and violence women face. Also, in creating a safe space for women to connect to one another, we hope to work toward channeling self-advocacy on a local level.
The approaches currently being used to achieve these goals involve having a visible presence in the community via outreach, deliveries, a 24-hour hotline and seasonal drop-ins. We also have alliances with local organizations and service providers who share our harm reduction oriented approach. Project SAFE also works on a national level with the Sex Workers Outreach Project.
Project SAFE is a educational organization. Since 2004, we have trained over 100 volunteers and interns in providing client-centered, affirming services to individuals who are involved in the sex and drug trades, using evidence-based practices, such as harm reduction. We also provide free trainings at colleges, universities, other non-profit organizations and at national conferences.
The community SAFE primarily works with are women (of cisgender or transgender experience) involved in street-based economies. Although it is up to each individual’s discretion to reveal whether or not they are currently or ever have participated in these economies, about half of our volunteers have disclosed that they are sex workers, and/or current or former substance users. There is also an open invitation to everyone we contact through outreach to volunteer with us, as well as work with us through several positions that include a stipend. Women we reach through outreach also serve as a base for forming advisory committees concerning developments or changes in the organization.
Project SAFE is funded in large part by AIDS United as well as our very own community members who keep us going. We are grateful to NASEN/Point Defiance AIDS Project, our 501(c)(3) fiscal sponsor.