Discreetly located to the south of downtown Providence, in one of the neighborhoods where street prostitution is most prevalent, Project Weber’s drop-in center opened in early October. (Project Weber prefers to keep the center’s exact location anonymous, to protect clients from their customers and even well-meaning family members.) Spacious and brightly sunlit, the space doesn’t quite feel lived-in yet. Holcomb’s desk sits in the middle of the room, with a large living room sectional to one side and a private consultation area with desks on the other where the rapid HIV and hepatitis C testing happens. A table by the entrance features informational flyers about STD prevention, and a large bowl by the door overflows with free condoms for men to take on the way out.
Holcomb says that they’re studying what times of day are most convenient for their clients, but currently the center is open with early afternoon, late evening, and weekend hours. With the exception of Holcomb, whose position is now grant-funded, the center is staffed entirely by volunteers who have freed themselves from their own cycles of drugs and prostitution.
Already it has exceeded expectations. Forty-nine clients have visited so far, for condoms and clean needles, but also for HIV testing, detox referrals, and a quiet, safe space to talk to other men who understand the problems they’re dealing with.
Jonathan, 26, is one of Project Weber’s peer educators. He first met Holcomb several years ago, during a period of his life that he describes as a “state of carelessness.” At the time he was homeless, addicted, and selling himself for drug money. He says he had no interest in his own safety, and he never bothered to use condoms or clean needles. Through Project Weber’s guidance and his own self-will, Jonathan went clean more than six months ago, and when the drop-in center opened in October he became one of its first peer counselors. Jonathan thanks Project Weber’s intervention for the fact that he is still HIV-negative.
Jonathan sees himself as a hopeful example for those looking to exit what he refers to as “the lifestyle.” Since quitting drugs his skin looks healthy, his eyes aren’t tired, and he’s not as skinny as he had been before. “The key is having a supportive network of people around you,” he says. “But just seeing my physical appearance alone gives them hope.”
Mike’s story is not unlike Jonathan’s. He’s 25, born and raised in Rhode Island, and he also got involved with Project Weber after Holcomb approached him on the street. “He came up to me and asked me if I was homeless, and whether I’d done any prostitution,” he says. “I had, but I lied because I didn’t want to tell anybody.”
Clean-cut and handsome, with a wide grin, Mike first developed a habit at the age of fifteen. He later worked as a stripper at a local club, dealing drugs on the side and spending a stint in jail after getting caught. He was incarcerated a second time earlier this year, and he’s still on parole. “I was going on a year of being clean,” he says, “and then I went out for three days.”
Mike describes those three days this summer as the worst hell that he’s ever been through. “It put the past right back in my face. It was a fresh reminder of the year I did this,” he says. He looks down periodically as he talks, always referring to his own prostitution only as “this.”
At the time of our first interview, Mike had been clean for less than 30 days. “On Saturday I’ll no longer be a client,” he says. “Then I’ll be a counselor.” Mike recently posted photos on Project Weber’s Facebook page of his newest investment: a forearm tattoo of the organization’s logo, a wheel of male figures joined at the hands.
“Things have changed, so guys really come to us now,” Holcomb says. “In just the last two months we have established two new positives.” While the discovery of HIV infections hardly seem like a cause for celebration, successfully getting HIV positive men tested and treated is. “We actually give each guy $10 for getting tested. Otherwise most of them wouldn’t bother,” Holcomb explains.
And that’s Project Weber’s real mission. “A small percentage of guys move on from the lifestyle,” Holcomb says. “That’s our hope, but that’s not our goal. Our goal is to minimize harm, and to make sure that the HIV positive ones stay on their meds.”
Justice for Roy?
Would things have turned out differently for Roy Weber if an outreach program for hustlers existed 10 years ago? It’s impossible to say, of course, but thanks to people who only knew him slightly, that young man’s name might ultimately represent something positive.
“We were just sort of casual associates,” Holcomb says. He’s careful about using the word “friend” when people are under the influence of drugs, he explains. “I got high with him a couple of times. That’s how we’d interact. If two guys each have $10, they’ll go in on a $20 bag of crack, and that would last 10 minutes, and then we’d both go back to work.”
Holcomb speculates that Weber’s murder wasn’t thoroughly investigated by police because he was a known addict and sex worker. (At press time, the Providence Police Department has not responded to the Phoenix’s requests for comment on Weber’s case.) But in the years since, others have taken up the search.
“Why would someone commit a murder at 7 o’clock in the morning on Christmas Day?” private investigator Tom Shamshak asks. Having worked on an independent investigation into the case since 2007, he believes that the murder was a drug-related execution and the body was staged against the chain-link fence as a warning to others.
Jennifer Dionne, president of the Licensed Private Detectives Association of Rhode Island, has been running her own pro bono investigation into the murder. She knows that Roy had a girlfriend at one time, that he had been living in Massachusetts with an older man a few months before the murder, and that he had told his sister that he was finally happy in one of their last phone conversations.
The two detectives have different ideas about who the mystery man in the photographs is, but both agree that he is the key to solving the murder. Both also remain surprisingly confident that the killer will be brought to justice.
While Dionne can’t discuss specifics, she claims to have strong leads. “We want whoever did this to know that it’s not over, and we will do everything we can to have this brought to justice,” she says. “Regardless of who he is or what he did, he was murdered. He deserves as much of a chance as anybody for justice to be served.”
Project Weber, meanwhile, will hold a candlelight vigil in Providence on Christmas Eve at 8 pm to honor Roy Weber. The vigil will begin at the corner of Allens Avenue and Ernest Street and proceed one block to the corner of Shipyard Street, the site where Weber’s body was found.
Project Weber will host an event on Thursday, January 30 at the Paff Auditorium at URI’s Providence Campus. The event will spotlight inspirational stories from Project Weber’s volunteers, guest speaker Yannick Potvin from Project Rizo in Montreal, and an awards ceremony. There will also be a screening of the half-hour sequel to Invisible, a 2013 documentary about Project Weber and male sex work in Providence. Go to projectweber.org for details.
Matthew Lawrence can be reached @ firstname.lastname@example.org.