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"People want their goddamn Chore Boy": On harm reduction during COVID-19
An interview with Caty Simon of Whose Corner Is It Anyway
I came across Whose Corner Is It Anyway on Twitter sometime last summer, and I’m really grateful, because encountering the group’s work has been transformative for me: I had not thought a lot about the intersection of this society’s relentless effort to punish people who are active drug users with sex workers’ rights. When we talk about “sex work [as] work,” we are not always prepared to talk about sex workers who also use opioids or stimulants and what it means to support them, outside of a very old model that insists on disciplining them before any other support is provided. I’ve been chewing on all of that ever since. I’ve also observed that Whose Corner is struggling for funding right now, and I thought I might be able to help some by interviewing the indefatigable Caty Simon, the group’s development director, for this silly-billy newsletter.
In 2017, Caty Simon and Naomi Lauren co-founded Whose Corner, a harm reduction, mutual aid, and political education group in Holyoke, MA, run by (current and former) low-income and housing-insecure sex workers who use stimulants and opioids. The group does incredible work, not just in mutual aid and advocacy, but in public health; members are increasingly engaged as advisers to local hospitals and publish and present research on harm reduction nationally. Since its founding, Whose Corner has raised the bulk of its funding through a long-running GoFundMe campaign page, which has added up to more than $460,000. Since 2022, however, the campaign has fallen off sharply. Worse yet, Meta wrongly terminated Caty’s account this fall—much giving had been driven by her Facebook posts. As the wheels continue to fall off of Twitter/X, the group’s financial circumstances grow even more pressing.
Caty is one of the busiest people I’ve ever met. She punctuated our conversation with swearing at text message notifications and emails (“Oh my God, why do people text me? It should not be allowed. The audacity”) and eventually had to go in order to conduct an interview of her own. We agreed to take the conversation up another time, but I wanted to share some of what she told me now. We talked for about an hour, but I didn’t end up asking a ton of questions, so I’ve drastically edited and condensed our conversation into a few sections.
On stigma in sex workers’ rights organizing
Unfortunately, sex workers who use drugs, or people who trade sex and use drugs—and highly criminalized stigmatized drugs, I should say—we're supposed to be some small, unfortunate minority that was to be swept under the rug [because we] made the rest of us look bad … [W]hite middle-class sex workers who might not even work in person are still the main voices and faces of sex work, though that's changing. But they are the ones who would like to be the movement voices, and sex workers who use drugs are an inconvenience to them at best. But like I always say, “Do coal miners have to sing like paeans to their labor in order to have labor rights? Why do sex workers have to?” I would say, in fact, that the people who most need labor rights are the people working in the most dangerous conditions, who are the most marginalized.
On Whose Corner Is It Anyway
In order to be a member of Whose Corner (and, therefore, in order to be a leader), you have to be a cis or trans woman or non-binary person and a low-income sex worker who: works or has worked outside; uses or has used opioids or stimulants; or experiences or has experienced houselessness.1 We saw, in those ways, those are the people that were getting fucked by how early Holyoke closed down as a town, by how small the stroll was, by how every cop knew your face, by the incredibly horrible treatment of all the area hospitals around us. So those were the people that we saw as our population when we started in 2017. All of those things … mak[e] it more difficult for them to access services of any kind.
But like I always say, “Do coal miners have to sing like paeans to their labor in order to have labor rights? Why do sex workers have to?” I would say, in fact, that the people who most need labor rights are the people working in the most dangerous conditions, who are the most marginalized.
We were [originally] a project for sex workers of our local SSP [syringe service program]. And because they were funded by the state, they could only offer us gift vouchers. You can look at the literature on it in peer reviewed journals—all sorts of research enterprises and organizations tell poor people and people who use drugs that they do not know how best to spend their own money. They can consent to a research project or the activities of an organization—there are [people] adult enough to consent to those, but they apparently can’t consent to be able to spend their money the way that they want to. So we gained our independence as a project by my starting the crowdfunder.
On the group’s pre-pandemic services and operations
Pre-pandemic, the core of our services was the weekly or biweekly meeting where the base membership would meet as a whole [and] we could afford to pay everybody like just a little bit for their attendance, 25 bucks for an hour and a half or two hours of meeting. We used these large meetings as a space for harm reduction supply and reproductive health distribution, but also for presentations of topics of interest on drug use, criminalization, et cetera. Anything from international and national experts around the world, on our dinky projector. We made collective decisions. We, you know, we passed around the task of facilitator and translator. We created home cooked meals for people. We had a setup and take-down committee crew. And we made a point of making sure that everybody was paid the same both for tasks that were quote feminized labor and for ideas labor.
On the group’s dramatic expansion of services during the pandemic
The ubiquitous advice at that point, for sex workers, was “go hop online,” and that was not a possibility for our population.
We immediately redesigned and dramatically expanded all of our services. We realized we couldn't have up to 80 people in [our] space … and we knew that the need— you know, so many social services were shuttered. And people were not—like the ubiquitous advice at that point, for sex workers, was go hop online, and that was not a possibility for our population.
So first of all, we created a monthly, incredibly huge supply distribution event that ended up [costing] about $10,000 [every time]. People just lined up. They got their cash gift, they got all sorts of other things they needed, [like] lock boxes for the COVD-19 methadone take-home regulation relaxation, where more people were allowed take home methadone doses. And we were giving out as many harm reduction supplies as we could because we knew that, like, people are gonna need them more than ever because syringe supply programs are going to be closed.
[Then,] Uber and Lyft became completely unreliable. So we created our own kind of fleet of trusted drivers [to] take people to events or to do emergency rides for people, which was a service that we sponsored before the pandemic.
We would also have our weekly drop-in hours where we would give somewhat more tailored services to fewer people. We would do low-threshold employment access [after sex worker collective] Lysistrata started doing surveys with us. We started getting people into pandemic unemployment assistance and onto other kinds of benefits and we at one point estimated that we put $600,000 into the community in just this [one] way. [We also kept] giving our folks small amounts of money every month in our smaller drop-in hours. People could come get bigger kinds of supplies, like tents and coats, sleeping bags, diapers for babies, harm reduction, reproductive health and hygiene supplies.
On developing geoculturally specific harm reduction materials for COVID-19
The pandemic made safer smoking supplies even more important than before.2 It was incredibly important just as an anti-racism measure to make sure that harm reduction supplies were [reaching] stimulant smokers of color, but also to start the conversation with people about changing routes of ingestion to safer ones. It's not like a coercive sort of proselytizing .. but [the] idea that you can have several different kinds of supplies around for different times … Use a sniff get to get well, or use the smoking to get well rather than go through all of the time-consuming effort of injection.
So obviously, nobody consulted or talked to people who smoked in the area about what they were doing or what they wanted from the [safer smoking] kit, so we did.
Smoking crack is infinitely safer than injecting it, or injecting powder coke. If you have a safer smoking kit around, you’re much more likely to smoke your crack … Because sharing pipes was going to become so much more dangerous—because COVID-19 was literally transmitted through air and breath—we decided to create a geoculturally specific [safer smoking kit] for our area. We weren't doing what so many harm reduction programs were doing, which was just, like, listening to what the man at the top said was most healthy or to what public health with a capital P and a capital H said was most healthy, regardless of acceptability and feasibility … A local syringe service program maybe gives out one [kit] a month and you know, there's a lot of talk about the quality of the kit—like, you know, the pusher3 is flimsy and will break, whatever whatever. So obviously, nobody consulted or talked to people who smoked in the area about what they were doing or what they wanted from the kit before they did that, so we did. We assembled a subcommittee of people who smoked stimulants and opioids to both design and assemble a geoculturally specific stimulant and opioid smoking supply kit.
We were talking to people and seeing what they wanted in their kits. They wanted Love Roses—like, you know, the cheaper pipes are sold in convenience stores with a little rose inside them that you take out, which is great because it gets around the paraphernalia laws.4 Because the Pyrex pipes, no matter that public health tells you they're safer because it's harder for them to break, et cetera? Nobody wants them. They draw a much worse smoke, and nobody wants— people want their goddamn Chore Boy, they don't want the silver or gold tobacco filters that harm reduction programs try to foist on their people.5 We know harm reduction programs that just have garbage cans full of those.
You have to listen to people and let people design a kit, especially like sex workers who use in a specific way with their clients and their friends. So that’s what we did. We were making up to 800 a month. And sometimes our tiny organization was the only, or the most consistent source, smoking supplies in our area, which is insane. The street does [us] a huge honor by reselling them for $5.
On how COVID affected the group’s funding
We had been using crowdfunding since 2017, [which was] basically me trading my social capital as an organizer for decades for this money. We also used grants and larger donations. But the crowdfunding was the backbone of our work, and that devolved during COVID. We [had been] getting up to $20,000 [a month] just from our crowdfunding. And in the first year or so of [COVID] we were making less than a quarter of that, sometimes like less than a fifth of that. And that’s because they Columbus-ed mutual aid during the pandemic and crowdfunding became an incredibly saturated market, even though it had served us well for so many years.
We didn’t get several grants we applied for because of these difficult intersections [we work at]—we applied for harm reduction funding and we realized no one would ever fund us for harm reduction … and it was a horrible blow because so many people in our grant-writing subcommittee put so many hours of labor into that. So we went through this period of deep defunding, where we had to cut back on our services.
Thanks to Caty for her time. I have some other parts of our conversation that I will edit and send out as a sequel!
Last month, Caty Simon received the Alfred R. Lindesmith Award for Achievement in the Field of Scholarship from the Drug Policy Alliance. You can see some of her peer-reviewed research here (the first five items are all things she has worked on). Find her on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram. And please support Whose Corner.
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Another way of saying this is that all members are current or former sex workers; which of the other three qualifications someone meets can vary. Some members meet one, some meet all three.
Whatever’s used to push the rock and filter into the pipe. Things like bamboo chopsticks are popular, but people will use whatever’s around—e.g., paperclips, nails.