Homeless Period
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Essentials for Women, The Period Project and Share The Dignity aim to make sanitary products accessible to people who are homeless.

Homeless Period

by Katherine O'Chee See Profile
Perth WA, Australia
2nd May 2019
Homeless Period

In Western Australia a woman was fined $500 for stealing a $6.45 packet of tampons from a service station.

It’s an incident that demonstrates how one of the many people caught in this position often have to choose between food and sanitary products, as they can’t afford both.

Many of these individuals are forced to use substitute methods of sanitary protection while on their period. Some put newspaper, socks or wads of toilet paper inside their underwear. Others leave their tampon in for days.

There are stories of people rinsing and reusing old tampons, which significantly increases their risk of vaginal infection.

The inability to access basic sanitary items is prevalent in Australia. The average homeless person is increasingly not the old man on the street but a young woman staying at refuges, couch-surfing, or living day-by-day inside her car, just to have a roof over her head.

Homelessness among the country’s female population has risen by 10 per cent since 2011, with domestic and family violence being cited by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) as its main cause.

“If you’ve got a woman who’s got nowhere to go, got no money, literally got the clothes on her back, she’s going to be focusing on that,” says domestic violence specialist Tanya Whitehouse, who has 24 years of life service to the NSW Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service (WDVCAS) in Macarthur.

“She’s not thinking ahead to potentially three weeks down the track when she gets her period,” Whitehouse added.

While crisis accommodation services provide short-term relief including food and shelter, they lack the funding and capacity to also offer sanitary products.

However, some women’s charities in Australia are helping to close this gap.

One such charity is South Australia’s Essentials for Women (E4WSA). E4WSA was established after founders Amy Rust and Kelly Peacock held a once-off donation drive for pads and tampons and began receiving calls six weeks later from shelters asking for more.

“Sanitary products were so rarely available they were the first things that went off the donation tables,” Rust says.

E4WSA runs one or two donation drives annually, but people can drop off sanitary items all year round. The items are sorted into period packs, composed of regular pads, overnight pads, liners and sanitary disposable pouches as well as a small chocolate. These packs are then distributed to organisations that need them.

“We raised a lot of awareness for people to not so much think outside the box when they’re thinking of doing something charitable but to just bring it right back to the basics,” Rust says. She then went on to say, “I couldn’t imagine the indignity of not having access to sanitary items.”

Dignity is exactly what sister charity, Share the Dignity, aims to provide to people experiencing homelessness, domestic violence or extreme poverty. Rochelle Courtenay, the founder, mentioned those that are affected by homelessness often lack the “ability to deal with their period in a way that most of us take for granted”.

To date, Share the Dignity has collected 1.7 million packets of pads and tampons. Volunteers are called ‘Sheros’, and there are currently 4,100 across Australia who gather sanitary product donations every month to send off to various charities and services.

Pictured: Rochelle Courtenay
Pictured: Rochelle Courtenay

This includes Whitehouse’s Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service in Macarthur, in Sydney’s south-west, which received “stacks of handbags” containing sanitary items, toiletries and small gifts from Share the Dignity’s#itsinthebagChristmas drive last year.

One woman who Tanya gave a handbag to said that she had never owned one before.

“[These women] cry,” Tanya says. “They’re so shocked that they get something for free, that they don’t have to do anything to get it… What’s really sad is some women don’t even believe they’re worthy of that stuff,” she says.

Courtenay describes the community’s support as tremendous, with people holding donation events at their weddings and instead of asking for wedding presents, they’ve asked friends and family to bring sanitary items.

This year, Share the Dignity is rolling out a hundred Dignity Vending Machines into poverty-stricken schools to support disadvantaged students who miss up to 200 days of schooling in senior school due to lack of access to sanitary products. The vending machines dispense free period packs, giving them “access [to] sanitary items without having to ask anybody,” says Courtenay.

The Period Project, which was originally based in Melbourne before its expansion to other Australian cities, is another charity that collects and distributes sanitary products to those in need. The charity now has about 700 to 800 sister sponsors who donate regularly, each sponsoring a homeless person through their period.

What is unique about the Period Project is that it offers six types of period packs to cater to different social, cultural and religious needs. This includes one for trans men, another for Indigenous women and another for refugees.

Giving homeless individuals choice over their sanitary products can be empowering, says founder Donna Stolzenberg.

“We’re very against that ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ motto … To take choice away from people, we’re institutionalising them and we’re assuming that we know what’s right for them and we know what they need. And to do that to someone can exacerbate feelings of disempowerment,” says Stolzenberg.

Stolzenberg points out some individuals prefer pads, because the insertion required of tampons and menstrual cups can be: painful for those with vaginal infections, forbidden in certain cultures, add to the trauma of women who have suffered sexual assault. It can also alienate trans men or aggravate dysphoria.

“When we think of menstrual management, we often think about our own: ‘What do I use? Therefore, they must use that.’ And that’s what we need to stop doing,” says Stolzenberg.

Stolzenberg believes the stigmas around talking about homelessness and periods have discouraged those in need from speaking up about their sanitary needs. However, these charities are certainly adding volume to the conversation and are fighting for the right to free sanitary items.

Learn more about E4WSA and Share The Dignity.

E4WSA Share The Dignity
Katherine O'Chee

About Katherine O'Chee

Katherine is a journalist and video producer from Sydney, Australia. Her passion lies in giving voice to minority groups and telling stories about immigration, mental health, identity, women’s rights and the environment. Her curiosity about the world means that she’s always asking questions and up for trying new hobbies.

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Health Care
Perth WA, Australia
2nd May 2019