The Basic Necessity Homeless Women Struggle To Afford

CREDIT: RACKET
CREDIT: RACKET

ThinkProgress has dedicated a portion of our coverage on Wednesday, June 29th to reporting on the state of homelessness in Washington, D.C. This story is part of that series.

Margo Seibert is an actress whose career has taken her to the stages of Broadway. But last year, she and her friend Caroline Angell, an author with a forthcoming novel, found themselves lugging 10,000 feminine hygiene products down the streets of midtown New York City.

It all started when they read an article last year about the need among homeless women for tampons and pads, products that are rarely donated to shelters and that can’t be bought with many public assistance benefits like food stamps or Medicaid. Yet women make up a third of all homeless people in shelters. The two longtime friends had already been volunteering at a homeless center at a church in their neighborhood every week for the last few years, but the article sparked an “aha” moment.

“We started to speak to some of our guests who were willing to chat about it,” Seibert said. They asked whether the homeless women they were working with did in fact have difficulty getting the products they needed when they got their periods. “We found time and time again absolutely that was true,” she said.

On top of that, in many states feminine hygiene products aren’t deemed to be a medical necessity and so are subject to sales tax, a phenomenon that’s come to be known as a “tampon tax.” That makes the products even more expensive for low-income people trying to afford them.

Menstrual hygiene products are very personal

So Seibert and Angell decided to team up and do something about it. They launched RACKET., an organization that runs regular drives to collect hygiene products and package them for delivery to shelters and other places that have limited access. And one of the first drives last year involved a number of publishing houses and Broadway theaters, netting those 10,000 tampons and pads that the two moved from midtown to the church on the Upper East Side.

Since then, the two-person team has begun tailoring their donation drives for the populations they’re trying to serve. “Menstrual hygiene products are very personal, everybody has their preference for what they want to use,” Seibert said. “We wanted to make sure that even though we were asking for donations we weren’t just assuming we knew what people prefer.” At one shelter, a big priority was wet wipes given that homeless women don’t always have access to showers. At another it was panty liners so that they didn’t need to wash their underwear as frequently.

Seibert and Angell are also pushing for larger changes beyond what their organization can accomplish on its own — changes that are already becoming reality. “Caroline and I don’t claim we’ll be able to provide everyone in New York City with the menstrual products that they need,” Seibert said.

One big step was Seibert joining a class action lawsuit that was filed in March against New York State over its tampon tax, which demanded not just a sales tax exemption for feminine hygiene products but a refund for anyone who had spent extra tax money on those products over the last two years. “The class action lawsuit was filed to kind of light the fire,” she explained. http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2016/04/12/3768690/new-york-end-tampon-tax/New York women are still waiting for their refund, but in the meantime the lawsuit seems to have spurred legislative action. The state legislature has now unanimously passed a bill exempting tampons and pads from sales tax, and the bill waits for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) signature. “I thought it would take years,” Seibert noted.

Meanwhile, the New York City council unanimously voted just last week to pass a bill that will guarantee access to free hygiene products in homeless shelters and public schools and better access in prisons and jails. It’s waiting for a signature from Mayor Bill de Blasio (D).

“In one year this tiny movement is actually turning into something quite huge,” she said.

Even these changes don’t mean the two plan to stop their efforts. “RACKET. is still going to be doing exactly what it’s been doing,” Seibert said. “With anything the problem is not going to be solved the day after legislation passed. There will definitely still be a need.”

And since launching RACKET., Seibert has learned about a number of other organizations working toward the same goal. She hopes eventually they can all work together. “Hopefully over the next year or so we will connect all of these little projects,” she said, “to create a bit of a network.”