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Sheltering Without Place

The only people one expects to see on the streets of New Haven this spring are masked figures shouldering grocery bags or hurrying to work in uniform, and the occasional spandex-clad jogger. But despite orders to shelter in place, at noon on April 7, Beatrice Codianni, age seventy-one, walked the streets of Fair Haven handing out face masks to those who can’t source them elsewhere: the members of the Sex Workers and Allies Network, or SWAN.

Codianni’s red hair falls around a face whose upper half is taken up by a pair of thick-framed glasses, the lower half dominated by a wide smile. Codianni, who founded SWAN in 2016, has been working with survival sex workers for thirteen years. “We hand out supplies, we do street based outreach. We have no fixed office site or anything like that,” she told me over the phone. Street sex work is often undertaken as a last resort, to support a drug addiction or as a response to an untenable home situation. SWAN has found that for the majority of survival sex workers, the alternative to finding a date is spending the night on the streets. Each week, as the rest of the nation isolates behind closed doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Codianni and her team load up on an assortment of toiletries, sex protection gear, and face masks, and head out to find their members on the streets.

In the last week of March, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont issued an executive order: “Stay home; stay safe.” As New Haven approaches one thousand coronavirus cases, residents who can are sheltering in place. For sex workers still sleeping on the street, the consequences of being unable to find shelter this spring could be fatal; on the same day that Codianni went back out to Fair Haven’s sidewalks to distribute face masks, news headlines read that one in three of Boston’s homeless had contracted the virus. While COVID-19 is a threat to anyone unable to isolate, for survival sex workers, it has the added effect of compounding issues of homelessness, discrimination, and pre-existing poor access to medical care. 

SWAN’s philosophy centers around harm reduction and prioritizes leadership by those who have experience in sex work. “Our motto is ‘Nothing about us without us,’” said Chloe Andree, a member of SWAN’s outreach team. Before the pandemic, SWAN provided a variety of services for survival sex workers—from self-defense and sexual health classes to ‘know your rights’ workshops and trauma informed therapy. But in the current moment, SWAN’s focus has narrowed to the daily struggle of keeping its members alive.

The formidable heart of the SWAN operation, Codianni is a New Haven local and activist whose work has revolved around tackling issues of sexism and marginalization. “I’ve been an activist for decades,” Codianni told me. “I was part of the first women’s liberation center right here in New Haven… then the anti-war movement… and civil rights.” But in her early forties, Codianni’s interest in community activism led her to join the local board of directors of the world’s largest hispanic street gang, the Latin Kings. By the early 1990s, when gang turf battles directed the attention of the FBI to the streets of New Haven, Codianni was on the gang’s Board of Directors.

“I was concerned about some of the kids in my neighborhood who are Latin Kings… three of them committed suicide,” Codianni explained to me. She wanted to act as a liaison between the gang and the community, so she called up the gang’s Vice President. “He said, ‘look, if you joined, they’d have to listen to you and you could get further if you were a member.’ So I joined.”

In 1994, Codianni landed in Danbury jail on charges of racketeering, and spent 15 years behind bars. “I’m part of the real women of Orange is the New Black. [The series] is a load of bullshit,” Codianni laughed. After nearly two decades of incarceration, Codianni returned to her native Fair Haven. She moved in with her son and tried to recover the threads of a normal life, maneuvering around the loss of her thirties and forties.

But in November 2016, Codianni had just walked into a City Hall meeting when she looked down at her phone to see the faces, names, and ages of 14 sex workers splashed across local news feeds. They had been arrested in a sting operation. Codianni herself had engaged in survival sex work before her Latin King days to support a drug addiction. Aware of how the police’s disregard for the women’s privacy would shatter and endanger their personal lives, Codianni began advocating for the rights of sex workers. “I was in the closet and I said, it’s time to come out of the closet and make some noise.” 

Codianni went straight to the Chief of Police. “I talked about the collateral consequences of doing stings. You’re never going to arrest away sex work,” she argues. Following a public demonstration at City Hall decrying the stings, the New Haven police released a statement calling off future sting operations. But Codianni knew more needed to be done to support New Haven’s survival sex workers.

Today, SWAN works with around 70 core members who engage in its programming, and reaches an overall ‘caseload’ of 125 individuals—the majority of whom are houseless. “When we formed SWAN we got together and said, what do we want to do? How are we going to work?”  Codianni’s decision was informed by her own history of survival sex work, and her first-hand knowledge of the discrimination that these women face. “Some people want to form a sex workers union, but I said we have to go after the most vulnerable population. And that’s people doing survivor or street sex work.” 

In a pandemic, many face financial struggles—but survival sex workers are finding that all avenues to making a living have been cut off. “They’re not getting dates with the same frequency that they were able to before, which was still not enough to make anywhere near a livable wage,” explained Evan Serio, a volunteer with the New Haven medical core and member of SWAN. The Connecticut state government’s reluctance to recognize sex work as a non-criminal avenue of employment has meant that sex workers find themselves ineligible for unemployment benefits and unable to access community relief funds without a functioning bank account. So the members of SWAN are pursuing the only options remaining to them. “They’re going to find [work] any way they can, and folks have to do riskier and riskier things… we’re seeing all these kinds of tangential terrible realities that have nothing to do with COVID-19 directly.” 

Sleeping on the street for nights on end can have dire health consequences. Feet swell under the compression of shoes that rarely come off. Hand washing requires a hunt for an obliging restaurant’s bathroom. Lack of access to nutritious food increases the risk for type 2 diabetes. The alternating realities of weather exposure, and tightly packed shelters—which can have up to eight people crowded into four feet of space—means that staving off infection from airborne viruses is difficult, if not impossible. And with the closure of homeless shelters, a severe situation has become a nightmare. “There’s folks that are living with conditions that are going to be far exacerbated by the fact that they don’t have a place to get a steady meal, a place to get out of this cold, or being able to charge their phones and keep up on their appointments,” said Serio. “I’m just as worried about somebody’s on again, off again treated diabetes as I am about COVID.”

And with the closure of homeless shelters, a severe situation has become a nightmare.

In most cases of COVID-19 infection, early hospitalization and medical care will mean recovery. But Serio is worried that systemic discrimination may prevent members of SWAN from finding their way to hospitals in time—and that those who do may experience a hostile reception. 

Codianni told me about her own experiences at medical centers—stories of derogatory name-calling, being forced to wait longer than other clients. While the treatment of sex workers varies from clinic to clinic, there are practical measures that prevent equal access to testing. “Folks have to have a car to get tested at drive-through places. And people need to have state issued photo ID on hand and other documents in order to get the referral in the first place.” 

With the majority of survival sex workers unwilling or unable to seek out clinics, a few medical professionals have decided to take their services to them. Phil Costello, director of Homeless Care at Hill Health Center, is one of them. I asked him how COVID-19 had affected his work. “Other than wearing face masks and gloves and PPE… we haven’t drawn back,” Costello said. “[The homeless] aren’t going to go to doctors and ERs… because of the humanity they feel they lose in those places.” As the majority of people sleeping on the street have a chronic cough, Costello relies on the intimate task of taking temperatures to diagnose infection.

“I think a lot of people are going to do as they tend to always do,” Costello said quietly. “Just keep, you know, running and existing how they know how until they get so sick that an ambulance is called.” 

As the number of COVID-19 cases in New Haven climbs, the perennial problem of homelessness in the city has taken on a new sense of urgency. The prevalence of survival sex work in New Haven is tied to the city’s lack of affordable housing; nearly all of those who find themselves without homes resort to street sex work at some point to survive. Codianni’s main concern is that the majority of SWAN’s members are still on the street—a problem that SWAN doesn’t have the resources to address. 

“The biggest thing is interior spaces, right?” Serio remarked. “There are a couple of agencies that house folks in the city, but there was still homelessness before this pandemic. They were already living with a reality where homelessness exists, which means that there were already not enough interior spaces.” With homeless shelters closing one after another to avoid acting as nurseries for the virus, the city’s three thousand–strong homeless population is being turned onto the street as New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker scrambles to find and fund the interior space necessary for the homeless to “shelter in place.”

Elicker faced two options: house the homeless in the city’s empty hotels, or ask the city’s universities for access to their thousands of vacant dorm rooms. After an initial request for Yale to open its doors to house first responders and firefighters—to which Yale’s answer was no, carefully packaged in statements of remorse and concerns about moving students belongings—the University eventually agreed to house 300 first responders. Elicker then turned to the city’s hotels to take in the homeless, including the street sex worker population. 

But on April 6, the plan to house people in the Best Western hotel fell through. West Haven Police Chief Joseph S. Perno had requested close to five thousand dollars to hire police officers for the  “safety and well-being of those housed,” and the city’s budget had buckled under the additional costs.

The policing of homeless housing presents a serious threat to providing shelter for those still sleeping on the streets. “They expect people to just come into the hotel room and leave everything behind,” Codianni muttered. “No. Some of the people who are going to come in have mental health issues or drug use and they’re going to throw them out again.” Codianni explained that survival sex workers are often turned away from shelters due to continued drug habits or limited number of shelter beds. As the city considers how best to save lives, street medic Evan Serio is concerned that putting regulation before safety will be reflected in the death count. “Are you doing this to save people’s lives, from keeping them from getting sick or affected?” he asked, “Or are you doing it to try to change their way of life to meet your standards?”

I put down the phone after my call with Codianni, only to find it ringing again minutes later. I pick up and hear her New England accent on the other side: “Well, aren’t we going to talk about Yale?” 

New Haven and Yale have been in a muted deadlock over Yale’s ballooning real estate holdings and lack of tax payments for years, but the coronavirus has laid bare the cracks in the University’s relationship with its host city. To Codianni, Yale’s closed doors and empty dorm space are the marks of its continued disregard for New Haven’s needs. “They said they were setting up the [Lanman gymnasium] for the Yale community. Well you know what, this is the New Haven community!” Codianni nearly yelled into the phone. With just a wall separating the empty dorms of Old Campus from homeless sleepers on the Green, the disparity has become impossible for organizations like SWAN to ignore. “People are out in the cold. It’s still cold out here. People are hungry. People need a place to go to the bathroom. Open your goddamn door, Yale.”

Codianni repositions the phone, and I hear the plastic rustle of groceries bags being put down on the kitchen table. As a member of the age group most threatened by the coronavirus, I asked whether she’d considered the risk of continuing her work. 

“I’ve cut down a lot,” she responded. “I mean, I used to be out there every day, and now I go… maybe three times in the last three weeks,” she said with a sigh. “But they’re not just members, they’re friends now. They are, you know, our tribe.” I asked her whether she’d taken up any hobbies (baking bread? gardening?) during quarantine. “Um, conference calls,” she replied with a rasping laugh. “I’m still working closely with the Global Health Justice Partnership, planning strategies of what we’re going to do, what we can do.”

The peak of the infection curve for Connecticut is expected around mid-May. Despite the work of the city and non-profits, the majority of the homeless population and survival sex workers may weather that peak on street curbs, or gathered together around benches on the Green. But the members of SWAN haven’t resigned themselves to New Haven going the way of Boston. As the infection and death figures climb steadily, Codianni sits at home and reaches out to anyone who will listen—governors, philanthropists, and reporters.

“And you can’t shut me up, as you just found out.”

— Rachel Calcott is a sophomore in Branford College.

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