Program providing COVID-19 relief to Oregon sex workers meets overwhelming demand

By Tess Novotny (OPB) and John Notarianni (OPB)
Nov. 14, 2020 8:09 p.m.

The program for Black, Indigenous and other sex workers of color has received five times more applications than available grants

Many sex workers in Portland have been unable to work enough to pay the bills since the beginning of the pandemic. Some of the services they offer are primarily in-person, such as the work of erotic dancers, and customers have not been coming to places like strip clubs as often. They banned from receiving U.S. Small Business Administration loans from a stipulation excluding services or live performances of a “prurient sexual nature.”


Now, however, help is on the way.

The Oregon Health Authority recently awarded nearly $600,000 to the Haymarket Pole Collective, an advocacy group for Black and Indigenous and other strippers of color.

"Black people aren't the problem. Racism is the problem," Cat Hollis said at a PDX Stripper Strike protest held July 11, 2020, in central Portland.

Cat Hollis, founder of the Haymarket Pole Collective at a PDX Stripper Strike protest held July 11, 2020, in central Portland.

Courtney Sherwood / OPB


The collective’s founder, Cat Hollis, said sex workers are a resilient group, but that there are still scores of workers across country who are struggling to make ends meet.

“I think a lot of people are struggling with what the future looks like,” she said.

She said the Oregon Health Authority aid will fund 200 relief and wellness kits, which include mail-in COVID-19 and sexually-transmitted infection test kits, as well as grocery and transportation gift cards.

The grant will also fund 75 micro-grants for rental and utility relief.

“Many of them are going to people who are in primary custody of multiple children; many of them are trans, in a houseless situation or at risk for houselessness,” Hollis said.

The application period ends Nov. 15, but despite only having 275 grants available, Hollis said the the program has received over 1,400 applications.

“Because these people are so resilient and so independent, it has been hard to find out that people even need help," she said, "This is one of the first opportunities that’s been directed at this specific community, so we’re one of the first to measure the need.”

Now, Hollis says the Haymarket Pole Collective is raising additional funds to support sex workers in Oregon through its web site.