FROM THE STREETS TO THE PROJECT Holcomb. [Photo by Richard McCaffrey]
Shortly after 10 am on Christmas Day, 2003, a Johnson & Wales campus safety officer patrolling a desolate stretch of road near Allens Avenue in Providence discovered the body of 22-year-old Roy Weber. Weber had been shot in the head and propped upright against a chain-link fence. The area, an industrial zone not far from adult entertainment venues with names like Trixx and Club Balloons, was well known to men out looking for somewhere to discreetly have sex or get high. On this rainy Christmas morning no one was around and Weber’s corpse could have easily gone unnoticed for hours, but when the officer found the body it was still warm.
Weber had no identification and no one had reported him missing, but a search of the FBI fingerprint database soon gave police his name and a fairly lengthy criminal record. The charges ranged from illegal check cashing to suspicious loitering outside a back entrance to what was then called the Providence Civic Center to assaulting a female cousin. As a teenager in Newport, he had run away from home repeatedly and spent time living in group homes. By the time of his death, he was addicted to crack cocaine and supporting his drug habit with prostitution.
Several days into the investigation, police learned that Weber had been seen on Christmas Eve at the Cathedral Square Apartments in downtown Providence. When they looked at security camera footage from the building, they found their biggest clue: grainy black-and-white photos of Weber and an older man leaving the building just a few moments apart at approximately 6:30 am. There had been some sort of party, most likely on the third floor of the building, but no one who lived there would confirm or deny that the two men had left together. Despite searches by police and private investigators, the mystery man was never identified and he never came forward with any information. Ten years later the case is still unresolved.
Five years after the murder, Richard Holcomb and James Waterman founded Project Weber, a non-profit organization named to honor a man that they hardly knew. Themselves former prostitutes and recovering addicts, Holcomb and Waterman wanted to protect the state’s population of street-level male sex workers. Armed with a backpack full of supplies donated by AIDS Care Ocean State, they began with basic HIV prevention: passing out condoms, along with clean needles for the IV drug users. They walked the streets at night, visiting the clubs and bookstores where many of the hustlers conducted their business. They also drove hustlers who needed rides to rehab centers and 12-step meetings.
Holcomb and Waterman eventually went to the Rhode Island Department of Health, hoping that the state would be willing to help them minimize the spread of HIV among this high-risk population. In 2009, after a failed first attempt, they were able to secure state money for a needs assessment study focusing on Providence’s street-level male sex workers. (Street-level prostitutes are those who are solicited in public, frequently from cars or inside businesses like strip clubs or adult bookstores, which by their nature can’t discourage loitering.)
Holcomb and Waterman went out to the adult bookstores and bathhouses, and in just three weeks they found 50 male prostitutes whom they asked about their sexual history, practices, and drug use. The results of the interviews were startling. Of the 50 men surveyed, 39 had used drugs within the past month, and 12 of those had injected drugs intravenously. Thirty-one had been homeless within the previous month, and all but two of that group were currently living on the street or in homeless shelters. Eleven tested positive for Hepatitis C, and three were known to be HIV-positive. Twenty-nine of the 50 men surveyed — nearly 60 percent — considered themselves straight, despite daily having sex with as many as eight to 10 men.
Straight men who engage in sexual acts with other men pose a unique challenge to public health professionals, because outreach programs and educational marketing geared towards gay men will automatically miss those who don’t identify under the LGBT umbrella. Often public health officials will use “MSM” — men who sleep with men — as a more practical classification than gay. Additionally, men tend to get lost in the shuffle in any discussion of prostitution, since female prostitutes are so much more visible.
This is where Project Weber comes in.
This fall, with the tenth anniversary of Roy Weber’s death approaching, the organization bearing his name opened a drop-in center in Providence where, five days a week, men can stop in for advice, a place to relax, a snack, a supply of condoms or a referral to a detox program. Its founders, Holcomb and Waterman, call it the only outreach program in the United States that specifically caters to male sex workers. In fact, they believe there are only three such centers in the world. The other two are located in Montreal and Prague, both much larger cities well known for their booming sex trades.
Old haunts, new mission
Throughout his 20s and into his early 30s, Providence native Richard Holcomb was an addict who funded his habit by catering to the many men who visit the capital city’s adult bookstores and bathhouses. Holcomb got into sex work at 20 years old, a time when he was homeless, addicted to cocaine, and living on the streets of Montreal. Although he considered himself straight at the time, he used paid sex with men to support his drug habit for more than a decade.
He eventually moved back to Providence to escape his demons and, in the process, discovered that his hometown had a male sex industry booming as much as Montreal’s. In November 2007 Holcomb tested positive for HIV; soon after, he cleaned up and started volunteering for AIDS Care Ocean State. It took some time — he had a brief drug relapse in the summer of 2008 — but on August 20 of that year he quit drugs for good. “That last relapse wasn’t the worst time,” he says. “Over the years I’ve experienced violence, sexual abuse, sleep deprivation, paranoia, and that particular relapse wasn’t as bad as any of those things. But right then I hit an emotional bottom, and because I was already doing HIV outreach, I realized that this time it wasn’t just me that I was bringing down anymore.”
Before the end of that year Holcomb was revisiting his old haunts, but with a new mission: to offer peer support to men who didn’t have access to condoms or clean needles, or who just didn’t care about themselves enough to bother. This was the beginning of Project Weber. Holcomb and partner James Waterman selected the name to honor Roy Weber, a man with whom they were acquainted with but didn’t really know, personally. In the five years since, they have been helping the city’s male sex workers at night, while presenting their own stories during the day at events like the recent Getting To Zero summit, a World AIDS Day event produced by Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School.
A majority of Project Weber’s clients are homeless. Sometimes they find a trick to stay with, but that usually only lasts for a short time. The drug users — a majority, but not everyone — primarily use crack and heroin. More recently, crystal meth has been on the rise in Rhode Island, along with bath salts and something called monkey weed, a dangerous synthetic marijuana substitute that’s legally sold as potpourri. The men are racially and ethnically diverse, and clients at Project Weber’s drop-in center range in age from 18 to 62. Some identify as straight, others gay. But in many cases that’s not really relevant. “When all you’re doing is getting high,” Holcomb says, “your personal sex drive is non-existent, to the point where some of the guys probably don’t even know how they identify.”
But why Providence? Male prostitution happens in every city, Holcomb says, but Providence has an established reputation. “If you go to the clubs and look at the license plates, none of them are from Rhode Island,” he says. “You see a lot of Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire.” Providence has a surprising number of gay bars for a city of its size, along with several adult bookstores, an all-male strip club, and two gay bathhouses, venues where men pay a cover charge in exchange for a locker or a bed and, presumably, for anonymous sex. In the early days of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, the health departments in major cities like San Francisco and New York closed their baths. Rhode Island’s have remained open.
It’s impossible to say how many hustlers are on the streets of Providence, but they number in the hundreds, Holcomb and Waterman estimate. Some are incarcerated, some move on to bigger cities, and some just disappear. While their presence downtown has decreased over the last 10 years — the adult bookstores on Empire Street have closed, and former cruising areas like the alley adjacent to the Providence Arcade have cleaned up — they have moved just south.
Despite the hedonistic reputation of Providence’s gay scene, however, visibility is one of the Project Weber’s biggest stumbling blocks when it comes to getting funding. “When people hear the word ‘prostitute,’ ” Holcomb says, “they automatically think ‘female.’
“When we started,” he continues, “I was amazed to learn that there were HIV outreach programs specifically for female sex workers, but there was no data and no services for male sex workers, who were always left out of any research.”