The Condoms? Please, Take One

David Johnson, left, talks with Will Williams at a business in Southeast Washington where he was leaving a bowl with free condoms for customers.
David Johnson, left, talks with Will Williams at a business in Southeast Washington where he was leaving a bowl with free condoms for customers. (Photos By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 1, 2006

David Johnson and Melina Afzal walked into the SpinCycle Coin Laundry in Southeast Washington just after 10 p.m. -- armed with condoms, not dirty clothes.

"So what do I do?" night manager Nathaniel Brown asked as the two began piling the packets into a bowl on the counter. Just tell customers the condoms are there for the taking, Johnson replied.

"I'll make sure people know," Brown assured him. "I'll keep the bowl full."

Over the next two months, businesses such as the laundromat are "Life Guard stations" in a project that is as grass-roots as they come. An alliance of six community groups intends to leave them little zip-lock bags of free protection and information, 30,000 condoms in all, to staunch transmission of the virus in targeted District neighborhoods.

"The idea is to get the word out: Here's a packet than can save your life," said Franck DeRose, executive director of an education organization, the Condom Project.

Today is World AIDS Day, and numerous events are being held across the District, a city that 25 years into the AIDS crisis has some of the worst HIV infection rates in the country. The Life Guard effort was born in part from the coalition's frustration over slow condom distribution by D.C. health officials.

Despite ambitious goals, the D.C. Administration for HIV Policy and Programs gave out only 290,000 condoms in 2004 and just a quarter of its 600,000 target in 2005. This year's total will be less than 105,000.

"This helps to fill that gap and address that need," said Barbara Chinn, director of the Whitman-Walker Clinic's Max Robinson Center in Southeast. "Because that need is now."

Condoms are one of the simplest, safest and most effective ways of preventing the spread of the virus. But in many neighborhoods, they are not easily accessible.

This fall, another community coalition took on CVS drugstores in lower-income areas that were selling condoms from locked containers. It recently persuaded CVS to keep open displays of at least some packets. The company also is donating 2,000 condoms for supporters to pass out on the street.

Expanded condom availability should be an "immediate priority," according to a report from the DC Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, a nonprofit public policy organization that has graded the District harshly for its response to the epidemic.

In September, HIV administration director Marsha Martin announced that the city would buy 1 million condoms to disseminate through nontraditional channels such as restaurants, hotels and boutiques. But that initiative has stalled because the purchase has yet to be approved by the city's contracts and procurements office.

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