In 2007, Dominique Anthony tested positive for HIV. At the time, she didn’t have access to health insurance, a doctor or any official support to navigate her diagnosis.
Despite a common misconception that the HIV epidemic ended in the 1980s, approximately 1.1 million people in the U.S. live with HIV today, according to HIV.gov. HIV also disproportionately impacts the lives of people experiencing homelessness. According to the National Institute of Health, 3.3% of the homeless population in the United States is HIV positive, compared with only 1.8% of the stably-housed population. Furthermore, a lack of housing has been identified as a “structural barrier” in receiving treatment, meaning that the harm HIV has on people experiencing homelessness, like Anthony, is especially severe.
“We need a realistic view of HIV because acting like it was something we left in the eighties is wrong,” Johnny Bailey, the community outreach coordinator at Honoring Individual Power and Strength (HIPS), said. “But also there’s another end of this where people are afraid to use the same toilet as someone who has HIV, and they’re still kind of in the eighties with their fear.”
Like many people, Anthony held some misconceptions about HIV before she was diagnosed. While many people still believe only homosexual men can get HIV, according to the National Library of Medicine, in reality it is transmissible to any person, of any gender and sexuality.
Specifically, HIV is more common among women who are engaging in sex work. “Some people do sex work to survive,” Anthony explained as she talked about her experience. “It’s an everyday way of life.” Anthony was diagnosed with HIV at a time when testing was not common among sex workers, and PrEP—a medication that is highly effective in preventing HIV according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—was not available.
Because of the lack of structural support for people with HIV, particularly those who are homeless, Anthony turned to various local organizations for help. One such organization, called the Women’s Collective, is a community health and human service agency that provides prevention, care for HIV and other STDs, and support services for girls and women. The most enduring though, in Anthony’s journey, has been HIPS, a harm reduction community offering syringe exchanges, mental health support and various other services.
Bailey describes HIPS as a “community organization in the purest sense of the word.” According to Bailey, as of 2021, HIPS had given out 12,000 overdose prevention kits, exchanged 551,468 syringes, met with 8,500 people in their mobile van and at a drop-in center, and held 540 peer support sessions. HIPS’ mission is to provide a service for people and communities impacted by sex work and drug use by providing a space that otherwise doesn’t exist in the DMV area. “There’s no one really like us,” Bailey said. “We’re trying to save lives and help people reduce harm and have a better life.”
For Anthony, HIPS has filled in the gaps. “They helped me by giving me support, giving me a lot of resources and a lot of things that I needed,” she said. Over the years, Anthony has attended meetings, support groups and training. However, recently she’s taken her role a step further. She now advocates for HIV awareness and prevention, giving support and resources to people in situations similar to hers. In the future, Anthony hopes to get a degree in health care administration so she can continue to support communities through her work.
“This work is important because we’re a community, and we have to save our community,” Anthony said.
Similar resources in the DMV include the Family and Medical Counseling Service, which organizes a safe needle exchange, and Narcan vending machines located around D.C.