After working two jobs for eight years Gwen Thomas finally saved up enough money to take a weeklong vacation to Cancun, Mexico.
But before leaving, Thomas was urged by friends to get a flu shot to ensure she would not get sick while out of the country, so she went to see her doctor. And instead of getting a flu shot she ended up getting treated for Chlamydia, a sexually transmitted disease (STD).
“There goes my vacation,” said Thomas, 47. “My doctor said I could still go, but I’d rather wait. I would feel funny sitting on the beach knowing I am carrying a disease inside me.”
The single mother, who works as a warehouse clerk by day and waitress by night, said she caught the disease from having unprotected sex with a man she met on a dating website.
“Trust me, it won’t happen again,” she added.
Incidents like this are common when it comes to the spread of STDs, according to a 2011 report by the Chicago Department of Health. The report concluded that the rate of STDs especially among blacks is rising and the best way to prevent infection is the use of condoms. The city has seven health clinics that treat STDs, but with staffing cuts due to budget constraints, health officials said it often cannot see every patient. Patients are seen on a first come, first serve basis.
The Syphilis Special Surveillance Report also stated that the number of primary and secondary syphilis cases among females and heterosexual males increased by 171 percent and 115 percent in 2009 and 2010. And congenital syphilis nearly doubled in 2010.
Armed with those statistics city officials have partnered with community organizations to seek out the best locations to distribute free condoms including some unusual places like hair salons, barbershops and even an auto repair shop. Condoms are made for men and women, but only male condoms are handed out by the city. And the price of condoms at most retail stores range from $5 to $15 depending on the brand.
There are 223 condom distribution sites listed on the city’s website, but the Crusader visited several and discovered more than 20 were invalid.
“That should not be happening,” said Quenjana Adams, a spokeswoman for the city’s Health Department. “I will check to see what sites may be outdated before we update our site for 2013.”
But indeed it is happening when you go to the city’s website, www. https://data.cityofchicago.org/Health-Human-Services/Condom-Distribution-Sites/azpf-uc4s, to find condom, distribution sites.
One invalid site is a business in the Englewood community on the South Side.
“A long time ago we handed out condoms. A lady from the city dropped off a box of condoms and asked me if I would hand them out to customers,” recalled Charles Thomas, owner of Union Auto Repair, 5834 S. Union St. “I still have the box and a handful left, but have not handed out any in about three years.”
However, Adams said it is important to note that condom sites are not chosen by the city.
“We leave that up to our partner agencies to choose the locations. They know the area better than we do,” she said. “The Chicago Condom Project has a goal of distributing 10 million condoms a year to stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.”
But not all locations are invalid.
Several barbershops and hair salons, whose customers are often teenagers and single adults, are still active participants.
Every Thursday Regina Brown, owner of Perfect Solutions Salon, said there is a rush to stockpile condoms for the weekend.
“Not only are my customers grabbing a handful, but so are people off the street. You would think I was giving away free money or something,” Brown said with a chuckle of humor. “But you know what? I’m glad to see so many people taking safe sex seriously.”
Her salon, 851 E. 79th St., is one of several “unusual” condom locations.
Other locations listed on the website include clothing stores, lounges and even a Baptist church.
Still, hair care businesses dominate the list.
But that is because “they serve a unique clientele,” said Peggie Applewhite, owner of No Other Place Beauty Shop, 11135 S. Halsted St. “A lot of our clients are single, and single people are having sex more than married couples. All of my customers are (Black) women, and they usually get condoms for their sons.”
Cain’s Barber College, 365 E. 51st St., is another location that distributes condoms.
And at Hair Icon, 6454 S. Cottage Grove Ave., manager Laconda Green said she is happy to be a condom distributor.
“Every day and all day people come in here to get condoms,” said Green. “We have been a distributor for the last three years.”