It wasn’t an easy time for Stacey Schiller.
Fresh out of court-ordered drug treatment, she had nowhere to live and ended up sleeping in her car while she was looking for a job. When her car was repossessed, she crashed on friends’ couches or spent the night in St. Paul parks. She got by on dry cereal and canned fruit from a food shelf. But finding the necessary products to manage her menstrual cycle was a challenge.
“No one thinks of this as a luxury, but when you’re homeless, it is,” Schiller said. “It makes a stressful situation worse.”
Talking about feminine products used to be taboo, but the very real need for them among low-income and homeless women has brought the issue front and center. Now, more organizations are augmenting food shelf drives by asking for donations of sanitary supplies along with pasta and peanut butter. And more Minnesota women are stepping up to help.
“There’s a resurgence of feminist fire in so many areas of life right now,” said Lisa Walden, a generational consultant for Minneapolis-based Bridgeworks. “Many women are no longer willing to act like a basic fact of life is gross, shameful or should be hidden.”
Some agencies that work with disadvantaged women have taken up the cause, framing it as a dignity issue.
At People Serving People in downtown Minneapolis, which provides families with transitional housing, female residents are provided with the necessities without having to request them.
“Basic needs are more than food and shelter, and this is a hidden need,” said Noah Gerding, the nonprofit’s development director. “We now distribute the products in colored plastic bags rather than clear ones. It’s a small change, but we want to think about the privacy of our guests while they’re living through an uncertain time.”
In December, Backpack Project MN, an all-volunteer organization that supports homeless youths, delivered 322 loaded backpacks to nonprofits that work with young people lacking permanent housing. In addition to practical necessities including warm socks and gloves, toiletries, first-aid supplies and a miniature sewing kit, half the backpacks contain feminine products.
“When we started, we put a few pads and tampons in, but now we do a two-month supply in each backpack,” said coordinator Chriss Garlick Reichow. “When you’re homeless, preplanning isn’t a likely thing. We want to solve an immediate problem and then give them a leg up on the next month.”
When Reichow was in high school in the ’80s, she remembers speaking about her period in a whisper. Now, she laughs, she has “Team Tampon” printed on her Backpack Project business card.
“We can’t be squeamish. We have to talk about this as a critical problem,” she said. “Wearing a pad too long because you don’t have another one can create irritation and infection. ”
Women step up
It’s not only social service agencies that are helping out: Everyday people also are trying to bridge the gap.
“We can be frank about this natural occurrence, embrace it,” Walden said. “I see women carrying the torch to help other women in their communities make sure they have access to what they need for daily life.”
Deb Balzer is one of them. The Northfield woman heard about the Backpack Project through social media and started her own drive to supply pads and tampons.
“It hit me, thinking how scary it would be to be a teen girl on the street, already vulnerable, and then you get your period and you don’t have access to what you need,” said Balzer, who raised $600.
“It’s someone else’s job to change their lives and get them off the street, but we can do this one real thing to help them get through the night.”
In Lonsdale, Minn., two neighbors who were looking for a service project started a drive to collect donations of sanitary products, which they distributed to shelters and food shelves in the south metro area.
“We were just stunned at the outpouring of support,” said drive co-founder Kurston Dahl. “We got 20 boxes of tampons and pads within the first 24 hours. People started dropping off supplies at our houses and donating money that we could use to buy in bulk. They’re so excited to help.”
The response has given Dahl, a 35-year-old mother of three, a new sense of empathy for women struggling with finances.
“I take it for granted that I’ll have pads and tampons when I need them. How uncomfortable it would be to worry about being able to take care of yourself,” she said.
Schiller, too, is now able to lend a hand.
She’s fought her way up, landing a permanent minimum wage job, earning a promotion and, eventually, a better paying position. Recently, she and her boyfriend bought a home in Cannon Falls, Minn. It’s one of the drop-off spots for the south metro drive for feminine product donations.
“I stumbled on what they were doing on their Facebook page, and since this is something I personally struggled with, I wanted to be part of raising awareness of this necessity,” she said. “I can give back now.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis based freelance broadcaster and writer.