Getting Out There: Creative Outreach Engages Hard-to-Reach Communities in Surprising Settings

To connect with men often missed by traditional outreach approaches, GAP-VIES, an AIDS service organization (ASO) in Montreal, is constantly on the lookout for new locations to reach out to straight men of Haitian origin to spread the word about sexual health and HIV prevention.

Check out the following settings where GAP-VIES successfully provides Haitian men with free literature on safer sex, condoms and confidential referrals to community resources on safer sex and HIV and sexually transmitted infection (STI) testing. Hopefully, these creative strategies will inspire your own outreach efforts.

Barbershops – In the Haitian community, the barbershop is more than just a place men go to get their hair cut. It is also a place where men meet to talk about the things that really matter to them—from sports and politics to raising a family and making ends meet. Barbershops are also a popular setting to talk about sex, and GAP-VIES has won over the trust of several local business owners to conduct outreach in their barbershops.

Garages – Like barbershops, garages serve as important locations for social exchange among Haitian men in Quebec. Though not always owned and run by Haitians, certain garages attract a predominantly Haitian clientele. While they are waiting to have their cars worked on, men will sit and visit with each other, discussing the same types of issues that come up in barbershops. Some garage owners have allowed GAP-VIES to set up mini sexual- health information booths in their garages during set hours.

Taxi stands – Taxi driving is a popular profession for some newly landed immigrants to Canada, and many Haitian men earn a living through this line of work. During off hours at busy taxi stands—particularly at airports—there are times when hundreds of drivers socialize and play cards or dominoes while lining up their vehicles in anticipation of a rush of customers. GAP-VIES has won over the trust of the men in these environments and can take advantage of this “downtime” to speak with them.

Music festivals – There are four big festivals popular with the Haitian community in Montreal and beyond. Together, these events draw between 5,000 and 10,000 people every year, of which 80% are Haitians from Quebec. By sending volunteers through the crowds with literature and condoms, GAP-VIES manages to reach thousands with information on safer sex. Musicians performing at the festivals are also approached by the organization and asked to incorporate messages about safer sex into their music, acts and videos. GAP-VIES also conducts outreach activities at dance parties organized by local bands. These events can bring together anywhere from 400 to 1,500 people.

Sporting events – Like music festivals, soccer matches are a popular draw for Haitian men in Quebec. Street basketball and other local sports are additional community events that draw smaller but equally animated crowds. GAP-VIES treats each of these events as an opportunity to reach its audience.

Employment and community centres – Like other populations of recently landed immigrants in Canada, Haitians new to Montreal frequently socialize around employment and community centres, where they learn to develop certain skills and integrate into the society. GAP-VIES frequently visits such locations to lead workshops on HIV/AIDS and STIs.

Churches – Religion provides practicing members of the Haitian community with a common faith, as well as a sense of community, tradition and history. GAP-VIES has worked closely with religious leaders in the Haitian community to bring information on sexual health into a religious context.

Saunas/bathhouses – Inspired by the work of initiatives to educate gay men about sexual health in bathhouses and sex clubs, GAP-VIES has taken its outreach work into two “mixed” saunas (accommodating both men and women) that draw a portion of their clientele from among Haitian and African men, most of whom identify as straight. GAP-VIES has discovered that lessons learned in gay bathhouses are largely transferable to this population. An outreach coordinator from GAP-VIES is present at the sauna at fixed hours on a weekly basis to provide information, safer-sex supplies and testing resources.

The work of GAP-VIES is inspiring for the diversity of venues accessed and the creativity of outreach efforts. For specific step-by-step information on delivering peer-based outreach in the context of one particular setting, see our case study on Operation Hairspray, which shows the work of Ottawa Public Health in the context of hair salons and barbershops.

For more information on the work of GAP-VIES, please contact:

Luc-Edgard Douyon