For a month, D.C. public health workers had canvassed the city's red-light districts asking prostitutes and pimps if they would attend a health fair, where they could be tested for exposure to the AIDS virus and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Hold one and we will come, they were assured.
Last night, health officials did just that, staffing booths at the Reeves Municipal Center at 14th and U streets NW for two hours. As enticements to attend, they even offered prizes of food and gift certificates for hair styling and lingerie.
But only about a dozen women and a few men showed up. The reason for the low turnout was simple, according to some who did attend: There was no financial incentive.
"If it don't involve money, they don't really want anything to do with it," said one woman who gave her name only as Samantha.
Nonetheless, health officials declared the event a success, calling it a start toward reaching a group of people who are at high risk of contracting and spreading the virus that causes AIDS.
"This is an important first step in terms of developing trust among some residents of the District who need our help," said Georges C. Benjamin, a physician who is the District's commissioner of public health.
The event, billed as the kickoff to the city's Prostitute Education and Training project, was organized by the Office of AIDS Activities, part of the D.C. Department of Public Health.
As part of the program, officials said they plan to provide services to prostitutes and educate them about how to prevent AIDS. They said they will hold more events aimed at offering the women health information and tips on safe sex.
Officials said they held the event at the Reeves Center for last night's fair because they figured the people they wanted to attend would consider it neutral territory.
So on the first floor of the gleaming, glass-and-metal building, in between Ed Murphy's Supper Club and Ben's bakery and ice cream store, health workers set up booths topped with informational pamphlets and brightly colored condoms.
They offered screening for exposure to AIDS, examinations for other sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea and syphilis, and pregnancy tests, using a more private room nearby to take blood samples.
They even had a podiatrist on hand. "A lot of these women spend a lot of time on their feet," said Iris Lee, chief of the Office of AIDS Activities.
Benjamin and Lee said last night's event has already had a practical effect: two women who came in for screening were found to have serious medical conditions and were referred to clinics for treatment.
The officials said they hope the women who showed up will spread the word on the street among other prostitutes.
A self-described prostitute who gave her name only as Elaine said she would urge her friends who work the streets to attend the next health fair. "You can get a pretty good physical here," she said.