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Sterilization-for-cash activists work mean streets of Las Vegas

Barbara Harris climbs out of her rented SUV and surveys the sun-soaked streets of Naked City.

Over here, a worn-out apartment complex with busted-out windows and graffiti-covered walls.

Over there, three drunken men squatting on somebody’s lawn in the shadow of the Stratosphere tower.

This is as good a place as any to start the morning’s work.

Harris flew into Las Vegas from her home in North Carolina this weekend in search of drug addicts and alcoholics. Her ongoing and controversial mission, hatched 15 years ago, is to pay as many of them as possible to stop having babies.

She and a half-dozen already sweating volunteers, from cities across the country, begin posting fliers on light poles. The fliers offer $300 to any addict or alcoholic willing to be sterilized or go on long-term birth control.

Don’t wait, make the call now. 1-888-30-CRACK.

Harris came up with idea while raising four children born to a drug-addicted Los Angeles woman. The children, whom Harris adopted with her husband, went through withdrawals and struggled with the long-term effects of being exposed to drugs while still in the womb.

“Before that, I never thought about mothers who were drug addicts while pregnant,” says Harris, now a 60-year-old grandmother. “A lot of people don’t realize this is going on.”

Some children born with addictions have severe medical and emotional problems. Some wind up being shipped from foster home to foster home.

“When you get passed around like a cardboard box, it’s hard to live up to your potential and feel like anybody cares about you,” Harris says.

She travels from city to city with her volunteers, whose lives each have been touched in one way or another by drug addiction. One is a former addict from Detroit. Another is a California woman whose sister had babies while on drugs. They are all old friends by now.

Together they cruise tough neighborhoods for “clients.” Harris says her nonprofit, Project Prevention, which survives on private donations, has paid more than 4,000 people so far to have their tubes tied or to use long-term birth control such as an IUD. It has paid 72 men to get vasectomies. In Las Vegas, 260 people have agreed to the deal so far.

Along the way Harris has faced plenty of criticism from civil rights leaders, women’s groups and others who say paying vulnerable addicts to get sterilized is unethical. Some say the money would be better spent on drug treatment programs. Harris has been called a racist, accused of targeting poor blacks for sterilization. Some have compared her work to social engineering.

Her husband of 30 years, Smitty Harris, says the racism charge is ironic. He’s black. The couple’s six biological children are biracial, and their four adopted children are black.

“When people realize our connection, a lot of the misconceptions fall away,” the surgical technician says while trailing his wife down a garbage-strewn alley.

Harris herself doesn’t pay attention to any of the criticism.

“It really doesn’t affect me at all,” she says. “Unless you are willing to step up and adopt these kids, your opinion means nothing to me. You want them to be born, and then who raises them?”

Those who dial Harris’ toll-free number hoping to get paid must first provide proof of a drug or alcohol problem – arrests on drug charges or a doctor’s note, for example.

They later have to provide proof they have undergone a sterilization procedure or received long-term birth control. If insurance or Medicare won’t pay and the client can’t, Project Prevention will.

You’re either going to pay for it now or pay for the kids later, Harris says.

“It makes more sense to pay for it before,” she said

She and her volunteers speak briefly to those they approach on the street before handing them a flier. They wear matching white T-shirts that read: “Every baby deserves a sober start.”

Several men accept the fliers gratefully. One street-hardened woman pulling a rolling cart refuses to take one. A middle-aged woman in a long floral dress asks for a stack of fliers to hand out in “the ghetto where I work in Pomona.”

It’s already 95 degrees outside. After posting dozens of fliers in Naked City, Harris and the volunteers step into a convenience store to buy bottled water.

Then they climb back into the SUV and head north, toward the homeless corridor.

Contact Lynnette Curtis at Lynnette.Curtis@yahoo.com

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