By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
At a busy corner in the heart of Ward 7, Jamal Hawkins, a former drug dealer, embarked on a new career: getting residents hooked on HIV/AIDS prevention. His boss, Terrence Young, also a former dealer, said the path to success is simple.
"The same rapport you had with people you were selling drugs to, that's the same skill set you use to sell HIV and AIDS prevention," Young said recently. "The people skills you developed from that apply here."
Young demonstrated his technique in the parking lot of a 24-hour convenience store, beckoning to a woman who was passing by. "Hey," he called out. "I got something for you. I got some condoms here if you need them." She walked away with a fistful.
In wards 7 and 8 -- where the HIV infection rates are among the highest in the District, where many of the city's ex-convicts live and where many of its arrests occur -- former drug dealers are being recruited as HIV counselors.
"We don't say in our job description that only drug dealers need apply, but the reality is that men and women who soldiered illegally on the streets have the skills for what we do," said A. Toni Young, executive director of the nonprofit Community Education Group. Young runs the 11-month-old program and helped conceive it.
With his smooth boyish face, Hawkins looks the part of the choirboy he once was, growing up in suburban Maryland. But he was drawn to the streets.
"It was just the lifestyle. I always wanted to live life in the fast lane," he said, standing beside one of the program's vans, dressed in an oversized T-shirt and droopy jeans that bunched over snow-white sneakers. "I was always affiliated with people who did dirt in D.C."
The District has the highest HIV infection rate of any major city in the country. Ward 8 has the city's highest infection rate, 2.8 percent, and Ward 7 is not far behind at 2.4 percent. The two wards have what HIV/AIDS workers call hard-to-reach populations, the people least likely to be tested for and informed about HIV/AIDS and most likely to spread it. They are the kind of people drug dealers come face to face with every day.
Young said she knows what critics will say: A former drug dealer is bound to slide back into criminal behavior. "I think that's the problem," she said. "We have to provide an opportunity for them to do something different from what we've known them to do. . . . We're not just trying to give people a job. We're trying to change them, and change a community's dynamic."
In the past year, at least two workers have stumbled, contributing to doubts about whether the program can succeed. Last month, a counselor was arrested for narcotics possession; earlier this year, a second worker failed a D.C. Corrections drug test, Young said.
"I had some hard choices to make," she said. "Do I say, 'You're fired'? Or do I let the justice system run its course? I'm trying to change people, but if you're being charged with a crime, that's a problem."
About 20 men and women, most of whom have criminal records, have completed the program's training courses since it began in October, Young said. "If I've managed to hold onto 18 out of those 20, I'll live with that. You have to consider that these workers have distributed more than 100,000 condoms east of the Anacostia River, they have tested more than 2,000 residents of wards 7 and 8, and they have referred more than 100 people to substance abuse care and treatment, and this area needs that."
The idea for the program started with a family member's fall from grace. Young's nephew Terrence was jailed for a drug conviction.
When he returned home in 2003, he was tired of a criminal life where rival dealers and police were gunning for him. With a new fianceé and a baby on the way, the 37-year-old broke down: "I don't know what I'm going to do."
Several years later, his aunt was planning to start a condom distribution campaign east of the Anacostia River and had an idea. "I saw something in him that he didn't see," she said. "I said I need someone who knows the streets."
As it turned out, Terrence Young was a sharp student, completing courses on HIV transmission and prevention and on how to help people change behaviors that lead to infection. He also learned how to give a rapid HIV test. Now he returns to his old haunts -- jails, halfway houses and probation offices -- to talk about HIV. He leaves fliers that offer jobs in HIV prevention for ex-convicts.
He tells them that he can't promise them the same money they made on the streets, but he can give them respect, decency and a positive role in their community.
Kehinde Hall was more than interested. After serving a prison sentence for armed robbery, Hall, 30, wanted a new life.
A return to drug dealing was out of the question, he said. "I got tired of looking over my shoulder, wondering who was comin' up behind me," he said. "I wanted to do right. I wanted to give back to the community, give my family a reason to look up to me, so that when I give my child a dollar for ice cream, it's a clean dollar."
For the first time, thug life had an advantage. "It's hard to get a Harvard student to come out here and do what we do because he couldn't relate," Hall said from the backseat of a Chevy Mark III van as it bounded down Minnesota Avenue, past blighted corners with check-cashing centers and dollar stores.
Last month, the old life caught up with Hall. He was arrested for narcotics possession after police officers searched him near his house. He is charged with two counts of possession of a controlled substance.
Hall said police searched him -- without cause -- and found nothing. But one of the officers said he saw Hall toss something near a trash bin. A search turned up drugs.
A. Toni Young said that's not the full story. Police came to Hall's house in response to a noise complaint. He and some friends were grilling in the back yard and blasting music. When the officers ordered him to turn the music down, Hall yelled at them. Had Hall been polite to the neighbor or the police, there would have been no incident, she said.
"That's what we're trying to teach here," Young said. "I blame Kehinde. The police were just doing their job."
Hall and Hawkins entered the program together and underwent three months of training for certification in HIV prevention. The entry-level outreach position, handing out condoms and referring people to support services such as job placement, pays about $28,000 a year.
Hawkins, 25, a fast learner, now earns about $34,000 a year.
Hawkins recalled a woman he met at a public housing complex in May, his first month of giving HIV tests. She paced nervously outside the van, he said, and when she stepped inside, "she was panicking." Hawkins went through the routine, checking off her behaviors as part of a risk assessment. "She was shootin' dope," he said. "Sharing needles. Having sex without condoms while high. She was saying yes to everything."
Hawkins looked the woman in the eye, the way he had been trained. "I told her I was worried," he said. "I said, 'I can't tell you to stop what you're doing, but I can tell you that if you're going to do it, at least be careful.' "
He swabbed her mouth. The result was negative. "She said, 'I'm going to take a rack of condoms and nobody is going to have sex with me without a condom anymore.' "
Five years ago, Hawkins was arrested after selling crack cocaine to an undercover officer in Virginia. He served three years, mostly at a federal prison in West Virginia, watching men engage in sex, worrying about AIDS, about being attacked. He said he decided to change his life.
"It was the guidance I got in prison," Hawkins said. "Guys who had longer stints told me, 'This isn't where you want to be.' "
As an outreach worker, Hawkins offers similar advice, and it's not always welcome. During one outing in Southeast, he said, he crossed paths with young drug dealers he knew. "They were like, 'Damn, what's this?' " He described his new life as an HIV counselor, a job with a paycheck. "Some of them tried to recruit me back."
One day late last month, the program vans rolled to a stop along a curb outside the Benning Terrace public housing complex. Hawkins stepped out with Kamau Hall, 33, Kehinde Hall's older brother. There wasn't a soul in the courtyard.
Kamau Hall, who was convicted of destruction of public property in connection with a 2001 drug arrest, wasn't worried. He knows how things go down at Benning Terrace.
"This is a word-of-mouth spot," he said. "Somebody will call somebody. Once that call goes out, they'll be coming from everywhere, all different directions."
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.