SF sex worker clinic moves to Mission Street

  • by Liz Highleyman, BAR Contributor
  • Monday August 29, 2022
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St. James Infirmary staff were joined by several Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence who blessed the clinic's new space at 1089 Mission Street August 24. Photo: Liz Highleyman
St. James Infirmary staff were joined by several Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence who blessed the clinic's new space at 1089 Mission Street August 24. Photo: Liz Highleyman

St. James Infirmary — the nation's first occupational health and safety clinic run by and for sex workers — has new digs and held a grand opening party to celebrate its fifth home in its two-decade history.

Several Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence were on hand August 24 at St. James' new location at 1089 Mission Street for the festivities and to bless the space.

"The work St. James Infirmary has done over the years is the blessing in itself," said Sister Roma. "The important services this organization provides to an underserved and often unseen community is invaluable, and we are so happy for you to have this beautiful new space."

The clinic, named after the late pioneering sex worker activist Margo St. James, offers a wide range of services for sex workers of all genders and orientations, including medical care, counseling, gender-affirming hormone therapy, and harm reduction services. St. James died in January 2021 at the age of 83.

"Our new home at Mission and Seventh streets is our fifth since 1999 and our first really 'grownup' space," SJI co-founder, clinical director, and nurse practitioner Chuck Cloniger, Ph.D., told the Bay Area Reporter. "It's a beautiful, modern, safe home for our participants and staff."

A two-decade history

SJI initially operated out of City Clinic on Seventh Street before opening its own facility at 1372 Mission Street, just blocks from the new location, in 2004. When the landlord sold that building, the San Francisco Department of Public Health helped the clinic secure a space on Eddy Street in the Tenderloin in 2016. Two years later, SJI moved to the Polk Street building that houses the San Francisco Community Health Center, Project Open Hand, and the Shanti Project.

Wherever it was based, SJI has provided judgment-free care for people of all genders involved in the sex trade and their partners and children who live and work in the Bay Area, as well as visiting sex workers.

SJI has more than 90 paid staff across all its programs who do around 10,000 participant or client encounters annually. SJI receives funding from DPH, the City and County of San Francisco, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and nonprofits including the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the Levi Strauss Foundation. It also relies on private donations. According to its IRS Form 990 for 2020, it operates on a budget of about $3.5 million.

"St. James Infirmary was created by sex workers for sex workers," Cloniger previously told the B.A.R. "When we talked with sex workers about their health needs, they often said that they never told their medical providers about their work. St. James Infirmary came into being to meet the unique health needs of sex workers and provide a safe place for them to be able to talk about their work and their lives."

The new Mission Street space includes medical facilities, counseling rooms, a harm reduction lounge, and an inviting community space, along with staff offices. Since the departure of its last full-time executive director, Toni Newman, in early 2020, the clinic has been run by 12 co-directors.

"We said, 'We don't want to hire another executive director. We're already running our programs,'" said co-director Anita "Durt" O'Shea. "We make decisions as a team. We have an incredible staff of amazing people. So many of us have been prostitutes, putas, hookers, drug users, homeless. We've experienced a lot of things that our clients, or participants, have experienced."

In addition to primary care, the clinic offers HIV testing and prevention services (including PrEP), sexually transmitted disease screening and treatment, hormones and other care for trans people, and mental health care. Medical services have been available by appointment during COVID-19, but SJI plans to restart its drop-in clinic, according to O'Shea.

SJI's new space also offers case management, support groups, housing assistance, clothing, and harm reduction services including clean syringes and naloxone for overdose prevention. In addition, its "Naughty Nurse Mobile" provides street outreach in areas where people in the sex trade work and gather. SJI also operates the Taimon Booton Navigation Center and the Bobbi Jean Baker House for trans and gender-nonconforming people experiencing homelessness. All services are free and confidential.

The latest move comes amid challenges including an increasingly steep cost of living in the city, displacement, a deadly overdose crisis, the continuing risk of COVID and now monkeypox, and an increasingly hostile national political and legal climate.

"As renewed threats to our bodily and human personhoods explode across the U.S., St. James Infirmary continues to stand as a bulwark against sex-worker stigma and violence and the closely related and complex effects of racism, transphobia, and homophobia, especially among the poor and unhoused," Cloniger said.

He welcomed current and former sex workers and their partners to visit the new space for services and "bring your voices and expertise to help us grow St James Infirmary into an increasingly impactful and justice-focused organization."

For more information about St. James Infirmary, visit its website.

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