Having dependable access to pads, tampons, and other feminine hygiene products is a necessity for any woman who gets a period. But across the country, many homeless and economically disadvantaged women find themselves without these products, either because they cannot afford them or because agencies like shelters do not have them readily available.
It wasn’t an issue that Sharron Phillips ever considered until June 2015, when her sister-in-law, Stephanie Arnold, shared an article about the difficulties homeless women in the United Kingdom face in accessing feminine hygiene products. “Never once had I thought about what homeless women do while on their periods,” Phillips says.
The two women wondered if this lack of access was also a problem for homeless women in Greenville, so they called a few shelters to inquire about the frequency of donations. They quickly discovered a pattern. “Everyone said very rarely do they see donations of menstrual products, and if they do, they’re the first things gone,” Phillips recalls.
She and Arnold decided to host an event called the Homeless Period Project to collect donations and assemble “period packs” — which include a supply of pads, tampons, liners, and feminine wipes — to deliver to local shelters. The two women didn’t have a specific plan going forward, Phillips says, but when a guest said she wanted to host her own event, they agreed to help.
The concept soon caught on, and the Homeless Period Project ultimately evolved into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, with Phillips and Arnold as co-founders. As its name would indicate, the Homeless Period Project initially supplied donations to street ministries and shelters, but it has since branched out to assist low-income individuals.
Phillips estimates that the Homeless Period Project, which now serves all of South Carolina, donates to between 30 and 40 entities in the Upstate alone. Current recipients include the Salvation Army, Place of Hope Day Shelter, Samaritan’s House, the Julie Valentine Center, Safe Harbor, some Title I schools in the Greenville County School District, and free medical clinics, among others.
“There is a great need for feminine hygiene products at the Salvation Army Women and Children’s Shelter,” says Rachel Wilkes, development director at the Salvation Army. “[They] are not frequently donated by the public, and when they do get donated, it is usually in small amounts. We are very grateful for the quantity and quality of hygiene products donated by the Homeless Period Project, as we do not have worries of running out.”
The cost of feminine hygiene products varies depending on brand and quantity, but for homeless and low-income women, even the least expensive generic products, which may cost between $4-6, can be challenging to afford. To add to that cost, South Carolina is one of 40 states that taxes feminine hygiene products as a “retail luxury.” In March 2016, the Post and Courier reported that some state lawmakers were considering introducing legislation to eliminate the so-called tampon tax, but it is currently still in effect.
Because having access to feminine hygiene products is so critical to women’s health, some women will ultimately resort to shoplifting if they’re desperate enough. “If you’re down to $10 and you’ve got meals to buy, then spending $5 on pads or tampons is just expensive,” Phillips says. “It’s sad how often we go shopping for these products and we see bags [of pads] already open or two or three tampons missing from a box.”
Both Jason Evans, community outreach specialist at New Horizon Family Health Services, and Nick Bush, program manager of United Ministries’ Place of Hope Day Shelter, have seen firsthand how the cost of feminine hygiene products impacts homeless and low-income women — and how the Homeless Period Project is helping to meet a critical need.
“Most of the women we see are transient and have no funds in order to purchase these products. The Homeless Period Project has been a huge help in supplying our need of feminine hygiene products,” Bush says. “I can tell you women really rely on us to have the products they need. Most of them have nowhere else to go to get access to these products.”
“I have been distributing the products to women we meet on the street and also women we are seeing on the mobile unit,” Evans says, “The women on the street mention that they often go without products, because any money they do come into goes toward food.”
Those who are interested in becoming involved with the Homeless Period Project have a variety of options. In addition to attending the organization’s events, which are sporadically held at various local businesses, individuals can host their own events to assemble period packs, help with deliveries to shelters and other locations, and donate supplies or money.
Looking ahead, Phillips hopes to add more volunteers to reach out to other institutions and find out what their needs are. “We’re just touching a small base. We’re finding out about a lot of school-age girls without these products,” she says. “As of now, we’re averaging 3,000 women and girls per month, and half of those are students. It’s sad to me that there’s such a need, but I’m proud that we’re finding it and helping it.”
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