Taking care of the homeless, one period at a time

Donna Soltzenberg and Natalie Cruz of the Melbourne Period Project.
Donna Soltzenberg and Natalie Cruz of the Melbourne Period Project. Photo: Supplied

When it comes to the mountain of problems faced by the homeless, the desperate need for food, shelter and warmth are the things that instantly come to mind.

But one of the most pressing questions faced by every woman who finds themselves living rough is usually overlooked. How do the homeless deal with their period in a safe and hygienic way?

Thanks to Donna Soltzenberg and Natalie Cruz, hundreds of homeless women and transgender men no longer have to worry about that question.

The women founded the Melbourne Period Project (MPP) last month and have already handed out more than 600 sanitary packs across the city.

"It sounds like such a small thing, but that bit of help for one week each month can make a huge difference in the life of these women and can help them get back on their feet and out of the cycle of homelessness," Donna said.

"If there is no money for pads or tampons, many women end up stealing them and therefore getting in trouble with the law.

"Others use their own clothes as makeshift pads, which isn't pleasant or hygienic. Some use toilet paper which means going into deserted toilet blocks in the middle of the night, which can be very dangerous."

The MPP relies on donations of sanitary products with people encouraged to "sponsor" a homeless woman by simply buying one extra packet of pads or tampons each month to donate. Big corporations, including Libra and Bonds, have also come on board and made valuable donations to the cause.

A team of generous volunteers provide drop-off points for donations and help assemble the packs which are distributed via a number of outreach groups who visit the homeless on the streets of Melbourne.

Each pack contains 30 pads or tampons, baby wipes, scented bags and a new pair of underpants. They do not contain menstrual cups as homeless women often do not have the means to empty and clean cups safely or adequately.

"We wanted to ensure women had the means to deal with their period in a hygienic and private way without having to leave their safe place, particularly overnight," Donna said.

Donna is keen to point out MPP does not discriminate and also provides sanitary packs to transgender men.

"Homeless transgender men face the same problems as women when it comes to dealing with a period, but it can be even more difficult for them to access what they need because it means explaining their story to someone new each month," Donna said.

"Now they are able to just ask for one of our packs without any questions being asked.'

Volunteers create a range of different packs depending on the differing needs of recipients who can discreetly request the type of pack they need.

The popularity of the MPP follows the hugely successful Blanket Melbourne, which Donna also founded. That initiative aimed to ensure every homeless person in Melbourne had a blanket to help keep keep them warm over winter. A total of 3000 blankets had been distributed by June this year.

Donna's selfless work for the homeless is even more impressive when you realise how busy the rest of her life is: in addition to being a mum of five boys, Donna also holds down a full-time job.

It was the diagnosis of Donna's youngest son with low functioning autism that fired her determination to help the homeless.

"When my son was diagnosed I realised he was going to need to be cared for for his entire life," Donna said.

"That made me worry about what he will happen to him when we are gone and I realised we needed to put plans in place to make sure he is always taken care of.

"But it also made me sad for the people who don't have anyone to care for them and end up living on the streets, I wanted to do something to help those people not just my son."

Natalie has an equally personal reason to assist the homeless. She was once living on the streets herself and vowed to help other homeless people improve their circumstances once her own life was back on track.

"Nat's experience and dedication is invaluable," Donna said. "She knows how it feels to be in the desperate situation homeless people find themselves in and is determined to do her bit to help."

For more information about the Melbourne Period Project visit their website or follow them on Facebook.