Prevention Point on the left, at the intersection of Kensington Avenue and Monmouth Street Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

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Ed note: This article includes a description of a sexual assault.

When Chyna Parker first started as a line staff worker at Prevention Point Philadelphia in 2018, she felt validated.

In recovery from addiction and formerly homeless herself, Parker was amazed by what she perceived as the positive environment at the Kensington harm reduction nonprofit. She’d never before experienced a space that prioritized people struggling with what she once had.

“To be able to help and tell them my story of what I went through, I was like, maybe my story will help change things,” said 43-year-old Parker, who lives in South Philly.

It didn’t take long for her perception to shift. Within six months of starting the job, Parker said, she was sexually assaulted by one of her colleagues. She also suffered through transphobic incidents regularly, and said a social worker threatened her because of her identity as a trans woman.

Other former Prevention Point employees told Billy Penn they experienced similar issues. When they reported what happened to leadership, they said, they didn’t get much help.

“There was no support,” said Tatyana Woodard, another trans woman who worked at Prevention Point around the same time as Parker and said she was sexually harassed by a coworker. “I remember feeling like nobody did anything, and feeling kind of helpless.”

About 12% of staffers at the nonprofit are trans, according to spokesperson Cari Bender. That’s more than 10 times the share in the general population, so trans discrimination issues could have an outsized effect on the organization’s workforce.

Prevention Point executive director José Benitez said he and his fellow managers try to be supportive of all their employees, including people in the trans community.

“I’m really sorry that folks have been made to feel uncomfortable,” Benitez told Billy Penn. “We will strive to do better in an effort to improve in areas that we need to improve.”

Prevention Point started as Philly’s first syringe exchange in 1991, when offering those services was actually illegal.

An effort to stem the tide of new HIV infections, the effort was so successful that a year later, then-Mayor Ed Rendell signed an executive order to legitimize the process. A 2019 study estimated without Prevention Point, another 10,000 Philadelphians would have been infected with HIV from 1993 to 2002.

The nonprofit still hands out millions of clean syringes every year, but it has expanded. It’s now one of the biggest public health providers in the city — offering widespread services like case management, overdose prevention education, housing, food, and mail and legal services.

But working at Prevention Point can come with immense personal struggle, according to Parker and other former employees. Used needles often littered the space. At times there was no heat or air conditioning in the shelter. For months, the lock on the door was broken — leaving staffers vulnerable to drug dealers who would enter with weapons.

Former Prevention Point housing case worker Courtney Lane believes staff trauma is widespread at the organization.

In her time there, she said she was constantly overworked, and she observed racism, abuse and sexual assault. In February 2020, Lane got pricked with a dirty needle, she said, and Prevention Point never paid her hospital bill. Eventually it went to collection.

“I was just a mess of a person,” Lane said about the change in her behaviors during her time working there. “I couldn’t even form sentences. I had jumbled speech. I couldn’t sleep. I was having cold sweats at night.”

Lane, who is cisgender, said transphobia is part of that problematic culture. She saw it in the way Parker and other trans colleagues were treated, and in the nonprofit’s health plan — which doesn’t cover gender affirming care, like hormone replacement therapy.

“Black trans women are scared to leave. To me, that is transphobia,” Lane said. “Because they are scared they’re not going to be able to get a full time job anywhere else.”

The organization has made some purposeful changes in the last few months, according to executive director Benitez. He said these include streamlining the sexual assault reporting process; starting an LGBTQ working group to address issues; and expanding the human resources department to five full-time staffers.

Two Black trans women were sexually tormented by the same employee

Parker learned to deal with the everyday challenges associated with working at Prevention Point. But it all came to a head when she was sexually assaulted on the job.

It was Friday, Nov. 30, 2018, about six months after she’d started the work. Parker was early into her 3 to 11 p.m. shift, and guests — how Prevention Point refers to people it helps — hadn’t arrived for dinner yet. She and her coworker were the only people in the building.

Suddenly, she said, her coworker called her frantically to the back stockroom. Parker ran toward the commotion, and when she got there, her coworker was pointing down at the floor. She bent down to check it out. That’s when he pressed up against her, groped her, and touched her breasts, Parker said. She pushed him away and yelled at him never to do it again.

“I just remember walking out of that stockroom and sitting down at the front desk, and the fear that I had,” Parker said. “The feeling that I had at that time was just like, ‘No, this is not good. This is not good. And I don’t feel safe.’”

Once home, she called another Prevention Point colleague to vent. Woodard, the former support staffer, picked up the phone. She was especially stunned to hear Parker’s story — because it sounded just like her own.

Earlier that year, Woodard had been frightened after getting sexually harassed at Prevention Point. By the same employee.

“Both of us in that moment were trying to console each other, but still kind of destroyed by realizing that we actually were [talking about] the same person in the same environment,” said Woodard, who’s also a Black trans woman.

It was summertime when the harassment happened, Woodard said. She was wearing shorts while serving food to guests, and the coworker approached her. He asked over and over again if he could see what was “inside her shorts.” Eventually he said, “I know you have a d-k.”

It was troubling for Woodard not just because of the verbal abuse, but also because she was outed as a trans woman to all the guests in earshot.

Afraid of how people would react, she never reported it to her bosses: “I was scared that, coming from sex work, no one would believe me being sexually assaulted.”

Parker and Woodard eventually decided to report their assaults together. In texts reviewed by Billy Penn, Parker reached out to her supervisor on Sunday, Dec. 2 and asked to give her a call “to discuss a few things.” A subsequent call is when Parker said she reported both incidents.

Next, she said she was directed to report the incidents to Prevention Point’s human resources department via a handwritten letter. On Dec. 3, Parker texted her supervisor: “I wrote the letter for u, I’ll give it to u tonight.”

After submitting the letter and speaking to HR, both Parker and Woodard said no one from Prevention Point ever reached back out to them to offer support. Two weeks later, they noticed the person who had assaulted them no longer worked there — but they didn’t know what happened, or whether he knew they had reported him.

Experts say following up with employees who report harassment or assault is an important part of resolving the situation. The Philadelphia nonprofit Women Against Abuse recommends people support their colleagues by offering them specific resources, like counseling or the use of a hotline. Some sexual assault and harassment policy guidelines suggest offering employees additional paid leave, and expressing flexibility around their work performance while they heal.

Benitez declined to comment, citing a policy to not speak on specific personnel issues.

‘Working there, you’re disposable. They don’t care’

Parker said there were other incidents that made her feel threatened or dismissed at work, contributing to her general distress.

“We’re living in a time where Black trans women are being killed at an alarming rate,” she noted. “We’re getting harassed at an alarming rate.”

The Human Rights Campaign recorded at least 51 trans or gender-nonconforming people who were killed in 2021 — marking the most violent year for LGBTQ people since 2013, when the HRC started keeping track. These statistics are usually dominated by a majority of Black and Latinx trans people.

In Philadelphia, at least three Black trans women were attacked in 2020, and two died. A trans woman was shot in East Kensington this year already, though she survived. Pennsylvania does not have hate crime laws protecting LGBTQ people, so they can be denied housing, education or employment just because they’re queer or trans.

A few months after her assault, Parker said she was assisting a social worker who had been contracted to help out at Prevention Point, and overheard the worker repeatedly misgendering a trans guest. When she stepped in with a correction, the social worker responded: “Sir, I’m not talking to you.”

The two got into a verbal disagreement over the repeated misgendering. Parker remembers the social worker then calling her boyfriend on the phone, and telling him to “get the thing in the closet” to come protect her from this “man.”

The “thing” must be a weapon, Parker thought, and the “man” must be her. Afraid for her life, she left in the middle of her shift.

Parker said she reported this incident to her supervisor as well, leaving a message on her cell phone. But she said her supervisor never returned her call. Benitez also declined to comment on this incident.

With little action from upper management, both Woodard and Parker didn’t feel safe, and gradually, they stopped showing up for their shifts. By September 2019, Parker said she was too traumatized to come in at all.

Benitez said it’s Prevention Point’s policy to check in after one no call/no show, but Parker said they never reached out to her at all. “Working there, you’re disposable. They don’t care,” she said.

In January 2020, Parker quit the job at Prevention Point. In texts reviewed by Billy Penn, she asked her supervisor for an exit interview on Jan. 13, 2020 to voice her concerns. Her supervisor agreed, but never actually scheduled it, Parker said.

A new process for reporting assaults → more culture change?

Benitez, who has been Prevention Point’s executive director for about 15 years, said the organization has totally reformed the process for reporting sexual assault. He described QR codes in public and private spaces all over the building that allow employees to easily report an incident directly to HR.

Anti-harassment and LGBTQ competency trainings are now mandated, Benitez said, though he declined to share who performs those trainings.

Benitez denied these changes came about because of previous issues with homophobia, transphobia or sexual assault.

Both Parker and Woodard are glad the person who assaulted them was, seemingly, fired — though they never knew for sure. But they agree it didn’t scratch the surface of what they needed. They asked for resources for counseling, for gender and sexuality training for the rest of staff, for an apology.

“I wish I would have had some acknowledgement of what actually happened,” Woodard said. “Maybe some resources or someone to talk to. Just some support from leadership.”

Instead, they said, it was mostly silence.

“They just put that under the rug,” Parker said. “They never discussed it ever again. They never said, ‘Hey, are you cool? You’re calling out a lot lately, what’s bothering you? What’s going on?’ They didn’t care.”

Parker followed up with Prevention Point’s human resources department in October 2021. In  emails obtained by Billy Penn, Parker asked for financial compensation for money spent on therapy, and the lost wages from when she was too traumatized to show up to work. She also asked for an apology.

In return correspondence, a Prevention Point staff member denied those requests and called Parker by her dead name. Benitez told Billy Penn the employee health plan does offer 10 free therapy sessions.

He affirmed the importance of the organization’s services for the community.

“The jobs that we do here are super tough,” Benitez said. “There’s not a day that we don’t provide some critical service, whether we’re feeding someone or housing someone in our shelter program. We strive as an organization to try to make things better, both within the community and within our own organization.”

Cognizant of Prevention Point’s critical role, former staff say the culture change can’t come soon enough.

All the former employees who spoke with Billy Penn said they left Prevention Point because of the trauma they incurred, and required mental health services to get past it. And for all of them, the hurt lingers.

“Whenever I hear someone say the words Prevention Point, I get goosebumps on my arm,” Parker said. “It’s just not a good place.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...