When homeless women get their periods, this organization is there to help

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On a muggy Sunday last November, volunteers shuffled into Leimert Park’s Fernando Pullum Arts Center clutching boxes of tampons and pads. Some arrived nervously, holding their contributions close, while others spoke candidly about a somehow still taboo topic — women’s periods.

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Volunteers gather to help assemble the kits. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Chelsea Warner, the group’s organizer, showed up in a car overloaded with boxes; and volunteers lined up to help her unload. Warner is the founder of Hashtag Happy Period, a non-profit that gives homeless women menstrual kits with pads, tampons, underwear and other necessities shelters run short on. Her kits are designed to ease the added stress caused by a monthly cycle and combat potential bacterial infections that can arise without adequate hygiene products.

Inside, volunteers organized colorful piles of tampons and pads to form an efficient assembly line. In under an hour, they produced hundreds of period kits to deliver to homeless shelters and Skid Row later that day.

Warner’s goal is to serve homeless women while working to destigmatize periods. “It’s necessary for a woman to have her period, so why would it be weird? That’s part of the conversation we really need to have: why are we ashamed of this and why is it considered to be gross? It’s a source of humanity,” she said.

Warner founded her organization nearly two years ago. She says she got the idea when she was driving through Hollywood and saw a homeless woman who was visibly on her period.

She was struck by a simple, yet often unasked question: “What do homeless women do when they’re on their periods?” So she started organizing.

At Skid Row later that day, each volunteer took a box of kits to hand out and walked the street to San Julian Park before circling back to Union Rescue Mission. Warner connected casually and comfortably with anyone who approached. As she explained the kits, women seemed shocked that someone was considering their periods. Men asked for kits for their girlfriends.

Warner says the ladies she meets are army vets, or women escaping abusive partners. They’re often in the throes of tragic hardships. This is reflective of the homeless population as a whole. In the past three years, LA county has seen a 55 percent hike in homeless women compared to an 18.8 percent increase in overall homelessness, according to LAHSA.

Warner knows she can’t end homelessness, but thinks she can at least make menstruation less of a burden for some of the women living on LA’s streets. This plays to her larger goal of normalizing and de-stigmatizing periods.

In addition to her efforts with Happy Period, Warner is involved in other “period positive” missions through LA. A big one is the fight against the “tampon tax.”

Warner is working with assemblywoman Cristina Garcia in her effort to end a tax on feminine products, which costs Californian women $20.2 million annually. In September, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed Garcia’s bill, but Garcia is rewriting it for a 2017 vote.

While eliminating this tax could help make feminine products more accessible to women in need, Warner says there will still be work to be done, because of course, these products won’t be free.

Six states have waived the tampon tax, and in June, New York became the first state to pass a measure requiring public schools, homeless shelters and prisons to offer free feminine products, a historic decision that passed in a 49-0 vote.

Warner is hopeful that California will follow suit. She and her charged community of pro-period volunteers plan to raise awareness about the bill. “Some people still actually don’t know it’s taxed in their state, yet there’s some states where bubble gum isn’t taxed, condoms aren’t taxed, pop tarts aren’t taxed. It’s stupid,” she said. “I need this, it’s expensive already, and now you want to tax me to have it? Come on now.”