It’s an early Thursday morning and a slow trickle of clients are coming through the doors of A Friendly Manor, a center for homeless women in West Oakland. The sign-up sheet for showers is almost full, and women take their seats around the common room, their belongings stacked next to them. Their eyes and bodies are heavy from the previous night.
The door to the closet, where they can get all kinds of toiletries, including pads, tampons, and adult diapers, is half open, ready for the next handout at exactly 2:15 p.m. Crates full of menstrual products, labeled according to size and type, line the back wall of the closet.
Every month, homeless and low-income women and girls in the East Bay have to contend with the high cost of feminine hygiene products. For some women, these products are a luxury they just cannot afford. It’s estimated that, in 2016, women in California paid around $7 per month for tampons and pads — but many can’t even afford these essential items.
“I have seen women come in who have made homemade tampons and pads going into toxic shock syndrome,” explained Heather Rose, center manager at A Friendly Manor. “One woman took rubber bands and toilet paper, rolled them together to make a tampon.” Other times, she said, she has seen women come in with blood running down their legs.
A Friendly Manor provides not only feminine hygiene products for homeless women, but also laundry facilities and a place to bathe. “We open the closet twice a day so people can get pads and tampons during their periods,” said Sister Marti McCarthy, the center’s director. They also give out underwear, as well as adult diapers, because it’s so difficult for women living on the street to launder their underwear during their periods.
For homeless women, it’s also hard to find a sanitary way to dispose of used hygiene products, or even use the bathroom in private, McCarthy added. “West Oakland is unique that under every freeway there are tents and people camping, [but] there’s only one camp that’s considered authorized where they have trash cans and bathrooms,” she said.
Women living on the streets are forced to “team up,” according to Melissa Pena, who as of this spring had been homeless for nearly five months. She regularly uses the facilities at A Friendly Manor. “Somebody will hold a blanket up so that somebody can use the bathroom on the street,” she explained.
Dealing with sanitation, she continued, “that’s the hardest when you’re on your period.”
In the Bay Area and across the United States, nonprofits, politicians, and students are advocating for low-cost, or free, feminine hygiene products to be placed in homeless shelters, public schools, and women’s jails. Locally, The Blossom Project, founded in 2016 in San Francisco by Tine Christensen, aims to provide homeless women in the Bay with monthly period packs, which contain tampons, pads, wet wipes and a bottle of water. Christensen, originally from Denmark, found the homeless problem startling after moving to the Bay Area. “It’s really hard living here and seeing so many homeless people who are struggling every day,” she said. “I have a social work background, so I thought, ‘How can I make a difference?’”
In September, 2016, the San Francisco Homeless Outreach Team gave out 300 Blossom packs. “The women feel so grateful when they get this basic need,” said Christensen, who realized the monthly delivery also provided an opportunity to offer women other support. “Next time you can say, ‘What about coming to a clinic to get help for other things?’”
But not all homeless and low-income services in the East Bay are able to provide tampons, the way The Blossom Project and A Friendly Manor do. For example, food banks often do not have the funds to provide menstrual products, and their mission statements prioritize the distribution of food over other products.
Michael Altfest, from the Alameda County Community Food Bank, said they only provide food to the 240 local agencies they work with, such as food pantries. “But we know anecdotally that our agencies are usually looking for [hygiene products]. They’re in demand — diapers and feminine products are requested,” he explained.
Homeless shelters, food banks, and family centers are often unable to purchase feminine hygiene products, despite requests from members of the community. Daniel Johnson, operations director at the Davis Street Family Resource Centre in San Leandro, said their budgets restrict what they are allowed to buy. “The grants that we receive and funding we have is restricted to buying particular food-type items. Those dollars are pretty well earmarked,” he said.
Johnson said sometimes stores such as Target will donate unsellable hygiene products to local charities, but these donations come in randomly and are not specific items that shelter users may have requested.
Similarly, Janet Bruce from the Richmond Emergency Food Pantry said that her agency mainly supplies just food packages to the local community. “We don’t give out any feminine hygiene products — we never have and I’ve worked in this industry for over 40 years,” Bruce said. “We can advocate for it — I would be most happy to advocate for it. I’ve never particularly thought about it … but I can imagine that they’re very much needed.”
Katie Derrig, operations manager for Operation Dignity, a homeless shelter in Oakland, said their beds are reserved for single male veterans, so they don’t offer feminine hygiene products in house. “Our street outreach team does carry feminine hygiene products and distributes them to women who are homeless and request them,” she added.
For some East Bay organizations, the demand for feminine hygiene products has been low. Mary Kuhn, communications director for Catholic Charities of the East Bay, said they have only encountered a couple of requests. “Because it hasn’t come up much, we have not developed a more systematic approach to this situation at this time. If this issue came up more often, then we would seek a process or research other resources,” Kuhn said.
Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown prevented the cost of feminine hygiene products sold in stores from being lowered, by vetoing Assembly Bill 1561, which would have ended the state’s “tampon tax.” In California, menstrual products are still taxed as luxury items, rather than medical necessities. According to California Assemblymember Cristina Garcia, the tax currently generates $20 million per year for the state.
A.B. 1561, sponsored by Garcia, would have exempted all menstrual products, tampons, pads, cups, and sponges from state sales tax. “This is the only gender-specific tax in our code,” she said. “Our budgets and our laws are a reflection of our values, and we should value women and treat their health needs as essential.
“I have always been frustrated that I get taxed for having a uterus,” Garcia added.
This month, Garcia introduced Assembly Bill 479, another attempt to end the sales tax on menstrual products. This time, it also includes a tax exemption for infant and adult diapers, as well as a proposal for offsetting the loss of $20 million in taxes by increasing the tax for alcoholic spirits that are under 100 proof. “By increasing the excise tax on liquor a little under two pennies per cocktail and a little over $1 per gallon, we’re able to not just pay for the tampon tax exemption, but also for the diaper tax exemption both for babies and adults,” Garcia said.
The Assembly member has also recently introduced Assembly Bill 10, which seeks to provide free menstrual products in schools, universities, and homeless shelters across California. The bill has passed the Assembly Education Committee and has been passed onto the Appropriations Committee.
In other parts of the United States, campaigns have already made sanitary products more accessible, both financially and physically. In 2016, New York became the sixth state to eliminate the “tampon tax,” along with Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Massachusetts. In the same year, the New York City Council voted unanimously to become the first U.S. city to provide free tampons and pads in public schools, homeless shelters and prisons.
Meanwhile, for homeless and low-income women in the East Bay, access to these products remains a challenge, but a high priority.
“I’m sure everybody would say, ‘If my periods could just go away, that would easier,’” said Pena, who relies on A Friendly Manor for her feminine hygiene supplies, adding that a bathroom or PortaPotty available around the clock, and stocked with supplies, would be helpful.
Center manager Heather Rose said the problem is extremely difficult to deal with, due to the lack of financial assistance from the government for organizations such as theirs, and because people don’t realize that women’s access to these products is a basic health need.
“I really believe if we started viewing the people that are in this situation as humans, that they need more help, then people would step up and do something,” she said.
This story was originally written for a news-reporting course at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. Read a longer version at OaklandNorth.net.