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August 27, 2015

Strength Alliance aims to help LGBTQ individuals engaged in 'survival sex'

The coalition is hosting an event Saturday aimed at connecting LGBTQ individuals to health service providors

The Strength Alliance, a coalition of service organizations, is hosting an event Saturday aimed at connecting members of the LGBTQ community to various health service and counseling resources.

But the coalition particularly hopes to reach a subset of the LGBTQ community engaged in so-called "survival sex," in which marginalized individuals feel obligated to perform sexual acts to maintain a living.

The Strength Alliance, a group spearheaded by Resources for Human Development, estimates 3,000 LGBTQ members are engaged in some form of commercial or underground sex work in Philadelphia.

"There are certain people who don't have access to opportunities to be in the workplace," RHD Chief Clinical Quality Officer Richelle Gunter said. "They find themselves working in what we call an underground economy. Generally, they do this out of desperation, but not in all cases.

"This is the only work available. People do it just so they can feed themselves, clothe themselves and live. The goal for RHD is to destigmatize people who are forced into underground economies and try to support them."

The Strength Alliance will host an event geared to connecting such individuals to an array of services Saturday at 11 a.m. at Thomas Paine Plaza, located across from Love Park.

The coalition will connect individuals to service providers offering health screenings, confidential HIV tests, behavioral health services, social services and housing access.

"The goal is really to give access to people," Gunter said. "It's also to educate people and raise people's awareness. The attempt is really to help people feel connected. If you're doing this kind of work, you feel really isolated. We want to bring down that isolation. We want to say to people, 'You still have rights to certain services.'"

Gunter said LGBTQ individuals who have engaged in "survival sex" need a sense of family in which they know they can stay connected. Without such affiliation, she said, it is difficult for people to navigate through the stigmas.

"Staying connected with a supported community is sometimes more challenging than just coming out," Gunter said. "I think it's hard sometimes for people who have been not necessarily visible to really feel connected to a community where they can get the things that they need — not just goods and services, but a sense of belonging."