The Fight to Give Homeless Women a Dignified Period
Homeless shelters’ biggest request isn’t canned goods. It’s feminine hygiene products.
Holly Sanchez wasn’t expecting anything monumental to happen when she asked her Twitter followers to donate pads and tampons to homeless shelters.
“I didn’t think that a tweet would go very far,” Sanchez told The Daily Beast, adding with a laugh, “It usually doesn’t in my tweeting experience.”
So the Chicago-based law student was “surprised and very excited” when U by Kotex contacted her to spearhead its Power to the Period donation drive, which runs through Sept. 30. So far, participants in this national drive have given more than 165,000 menstrual pads, tampons, and other period products to homeless shelters nationwide.
Despite recent media attention on the struggles faced by homeless women who have their periods, most people still don’t think to include a box of pads or tampons when donating to their local shelter. These products remain, as the Los Angeles Times recently reported, “among the most requested items at food pantries and homeless shelters.”
And yet, according to a Harris poll that U by Kotex commissioned for the donation drive, a mere 6 percent of respondents had ever donated period products to a homeless shelter. Three times as many said they had donated other toiletries.
Sanchez first learned about that discrepancy while working at a women’s shelter.
“I was really surprised to find that out feminine hygiene products were the biggest request that we had and that it wasn’t being filled,” she recalled.
Left without access to period products, homeless women and girls often have to improvise. One 25-year-old woman told Vice that she had to go to a McDonald’s and “roll a tissue up and use it as a sanitary towel.” Four other women recently told Cosmopolitan that they had to steal tampons, ask strangers for help, substitute paper towels for pads, and even use T-shirts as makeshift rags. And even when shelters do have products available, they are sometimes rationed due to a lack of supply.
“Dealing with my period when I was homeless was one of the most embarrassing things, because sanitary napkins were very limited at the shelters and…sometimes they would only give you one to three,” one woman told Cosmo.
According to Sanchez, the main reason people don’t donate period products is a simple one: “People just don’t think about it.”
“For those of us who can afford to buy these products every month, for those of us who don’t struggle to provide this for ourselves, it’s not something that we think about other people needing, even though it’s a monthly occurrence for so many people,” she said.
Cassidy, a 16-year-old participant in the Power to the Period drive, didn’t realize that other girls might have problems getting pads until she met a crying girl in her high school bathroom.
“I asked her if she needed anything and she said she started her period and was using wads of toilet paper as pads because she was staying with her mom in the shelter and that they had no pads there and her mom didn’t work or have extra money,” she wrote.
“I was stunned,” she continued. “It had never occurred to me that all females do not have the necessary products when they have their periods.”
So far, U by Kotex told The Daily Beast, Cassidy and almost 45,000 other participants have signed up to donate on the DoSomething.org page for the Power to the Period donation drive. And while everyone is encouraged to give wherever they can, U by Kotex is offering a chance to win a $5,000 scholarship to those who sign up for the drive. The brand is also promising to donate 75 cases of period products to each shelter selected by the top five competitors in about 20 sub-competitions.
As Jennifer Weiss-Wolf noted in The New York Times last year, there have been “a variety of homegrown projects and partnerships around the country” to encourage donations of period products to homeless shelters. Distributing Dignity, for example, partners with shelters and service providers in nine states, including California, New York, and Florida.
But according to Maahika Srinivasan, the campaign lead at DoSomething.org, Power to the Period is “the first national drive for period products.” The brand has also tapped Ingrid Nilsen, a popular YouTuber with more than 4,000,000 subscribers, to appear in a PSA for the donation drive.
Sanchez hopes that it’s enough to draw national attention to the issue—and that the attention won’t fade after the drive is over.
“I hope that people donate a box or more for this drive but then continue to do that throughout their lives,” she told The Daily Beast. “Obviously this drive will end at the end of September, but these issues and this need won’t.”