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What do homeless women in Australia do about their periods?

“No woman should suffer the indignity of choosing between eating or buying sanitary items.”

Homeless women used to crowd into an Adelaide department store every day in the winter — but it was one lone woman that caught the eye of security guard Sue.

The woman had blood dripping down her legs, and a rust-coloured stain on the back of her dress. So when Sue saw her snatch a box of sanitary pads from the store shelves and stuff it into her worn backpack, she decided to turn a blind eye — knowing that for the woman with the stained dress, the cost of a box of pads might mean missing out on a meal.

Share the Dignity
There are currently 105,237 homeless people living in Australia, 44 percent of who identify as female.

Sadly, this woman’s tale — told to Mamamia by homeless women’s charity Share the Dignity — isn’t uncommon in our so-called ‘lucky country’.

There are currently 105,237 homeless people living in Australia, of whom 44 percent identify as female, according to Homelessness Australia. And while the male population of the homeless community is higher, there’s one recurring challenge homeless women have to deal with with on top of all their other struggles: their period.

Related: It’s one of the hardest things about being homeless. But it’s rarely discussed.

“Gas stations and public buildings were my best friends, I’ll tell you that. I took ‘whore baths’ in sinks at gas stations and did my period business in there,” one formerly homeless woman wrote in a Reddit thread on how women living on the streets manage menstruation.

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“We called them ‘pirate baths’ but yeah, beaches and gas stations have public restrooms. Hand dryers with the nozzle twisted upside down = hair dryers, and paper towels = makeshift pads,” another agreed.

One woman described making a tampon out of four or five squares of toilet paper rolled up tightly: “It’s gross and weird and pretty unsanitary, but it will keep your underwear clean, which is pretty important if you don’t have a drawer full of underwear,” she said.

Some had used menstrual cups as a solution, although there was debate over whether that was hygienic. “Cups need to be boiled every month to sterilize them, which not every homeless person has. Public restrooms aren’t set up in such a way that changing them is convenient (you often have to leave the stall to go wash it out),” one commenter pointed out.

It’s gross and weird and pretty unsanitary, but it will keep your underwear clean, which is pretty important if you don’t have a drawer full of underwear,” one Reddit commenter wrote of creating makeshift tampons from toilet paper.

It was a Mamamia post on this issue earlier this year that prompted Brisbane mothers Heather and Rochelle to start their own charity, Share The Dignity, to help women living on the streets.

“At that time of the month the homeless women tend to wear dark bottoms and really do make their own makeshift pads from either rags or paper towels,” the organisation’s co-founder Rochelle told Mamamia.

“Our team leader in the Northern Territory talks about women in Darwin using petrol stations to clean themselves up and staff there are also turning the other cheek as sanitary items are stolen.”

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Related Post: The prospect of being a woman without a home is frightening.

Share The Dignity held its first drive in March, when Heather and Rochelle banded their community together and collected more than 400 pads and tampons to donate to homeless women. After distributing them to local women’s shelters, the Brisbane women sent the remaining sanitary items to Vanuatu to aid disaster relief efforts.

“Our aim is to provide homeless and at-risk women nationally with sanitary products to allow them a sense of dignity at a time when they need it most,” Rochelle said. “No woman should suffer the indignity of choosing between eating or buying sanitary items.”

After being approached by a series of women’s shelters, Rochelle and Heather eventually ran out of pads and tampons to give away, prompting them to expand their charity. Their current collection round, which ends on August 1, aims to collect over 10,000 pads and tampons from over 500 locations in Australia for women living on the streets.

share the dignity
Heather and Rochelle, founders of Share the Dignity.

Rochelle believes there is a direct correlation between domestic violence and mental health issues and the rise in homelessness, which increasingly affects very young and older women, and disproportionately affects single parents — mostly women.

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As Mamamia reported previously, women living on the streets also face other struggles: They are at high risk of sexual violence, rape, and trafficking, with one study showing 13 per cent of homeless women reported being raped in the past 12 months.

In comparison, periods may seem like a minor issue. However, it is an issue that affects all homeless women — and, sadly, it seems the only thing preventing a solution is that too few people are even aware the problem exists.

edited pads
Their second collection round now aims to collected over 10,000 pads and tampons from over 500 locations in Australia for women living on the streets.

As the Huffington Post points out, society’s reticence to discuss periods in general means that the issue remains taboo, leaving those in a position to help unaware of homeless women’s need for sanitary products.

“Most of us… have a warm bed, hot water bottle and an endless supply of Nurofen and sanitary items to see us through our dreaded time of the month,” Rochelle says.

Homeless women don’t have any of those things — and it’s time to get the message out.

As Rochelle put it: “It is our responsibility to change this.”

If you would like to support Share the Dignity, you can contact them on [email protected] to organise a collection bin for your office.

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