When thinking about the homeless, people do not usually associate it with women. And when it comes to the stack of worries that beset them; the pressing necessity for money, food and shelter are the preeminent things that we think about. But one of the most crucial questions every down and out woman encounters is commonly overlooked: If you had to choose between a meal and essential sanitary products during that time of the month, what would you do?

Yes, I am referring to that thing each woman has to go through, yet not often talked about: our period. In fact, we often call it by its code names like Aunt Flo, shark week and code red.

Period issues seem to be less of a problem when compared to more significant ones like domestic violence; one study shows 36 per cent of homeless women reported receiving assistance with domestic violence in 2014-2015. However, having menstruation is one that all women who are sleeping rough distresses over each month.

There are different ways homeless women deal with their periods. But even in an open country like Australia, menstruation is still a taboo topic to discuss about openly, which can lead to possibilities of major health risks.

Recently I spoke to Donna Stolzenberg, who is the founder of the Melbourne Period Project. This organisation hands out sanitary products to the homeless community for free.

At 11am on a Tuesday morning, I visited their warehouse at Port Melbourne that was newly leased by the organisation. Huge boxes and bags of sanitary products - some I had not seen before - that cluttered a large corner of the office greeted me.

“Wow, you have more than enough items in this warehouse to last you for at least a year!” I exclaimed. “Oh, this is actually not much, considering that at least 77,000 individual items go out in a month. I get that a lot though. Come on in!” Donna replied casually.

She showed me around the cosy space, explaining her future plans for re-constructing each area. She visualises a welcoming place for women on the streets to seek shelter at. After the quick tour, Donna excused herself to dive back into the long list of admin work that she was in the middle of.

At that moment, the only noises in the office were the latest songs that played from her desktop, and the sound of her furious typing on the keyboard. This went on for a while.

In the process of clearing her emails, I caught her scrunching her eyebrows a few times. Halfway through, she unconsciously heaved a huge sigh.

Once she was done, she let’s out an “ok…”, relived that she had finally finished that part of her work. She moved over to join me in the lounge area, and just like the casual black outfit she was wearing, Donna laid back relaxed on the couch with a beaming smile that signalled the start of our conversation.

Even though she gives off a fiery and strong vibe, Donna couldn’t hide her vulnerable side as she opened up her stories and the troubles the homeless have to face.

“It all started from the Melbourne Homeless Support Group on Facebook that my eldest son set up,” told Donna, as she reminisced about what happened two years ago.

“When we were still living in Perth, he joined the Perth Homeless Support Group. But after moving to Melbourne, he realised that there was no equivalent here, so he created the group. However, he didn’t live in Melbourne anymore, so he made me the admin. People started to join, and everything snowballed,” she said.

Donna’s youngest son is the catalyst for what she does. Eight years ago, he was born with autism. She started to think about what life was like when she wasn’t around and there wasn’t anyone around to look after her son. Because of this disability, he was at a higher risk of becoming homeless.

In order to know more, Donna started searching up on homeless people, and what she found was awful.

“People tend to have this made up idea about homelessness. Rather than asking questions, they tend to tell you things. It’s frustrating not to yell at them,” she laughed.

She thought that if she was going to try to save one person, which is her son, why not try to save as many as she could?

The Melbourne Period Project was founded as a result of her first charity organisation – Blanket Melbourne, where they give out free blankets to the homeless. Halfway through that, a friend realised that Donna was working with people that were homeless and she sent her a link to the Homeless Period project in London. She said that it’s something else that needs to be looked into.

Statistics from Homelessness Australia in 2011 indicate that 44% of the 105,237 homeless people in Australia are women. This translates to 45,813 women who are facing troubles dealing with their periods in a safe and hygienic way, but the true number is likely to be much higher.

Donna added that the Australian government is not giving enough funding to support the homeless, and that sanitary items are considered a luxury item.

According to the United Nations, the stigma around menstruation is a “violation of several human rights, most importantly of the right to human dignity.” So why do women still have to humiliate themselves with clothes that are soiled and stained in one of the world’s wealthiest countries?

She took a few weeks to think about what she wanted to do before stepping in to launch the Melbourne Period Project on Facebook in June 2015.

With more than 14,000 likes on their Facebook page, nobody would have thought that on the day of the launch, Donna was aiming to receive only 100 likes in 12 months. Much to her surprise, they had more than 1,000 likes in the first 24 hours.

“For the first 6 weeks, I almost didn’t sleep just getting through everything because I was still working full-time and running the Melbourne Homeless Support Group and Blanket Melbourne all at the same time. It grew so big that I eventually had to give up my salary and believed in what I was doing. If I knew how huge it would get, I would have planned a firmer foundation first!” she proudly added.

Period packs were volunteer-assembled and meant for individual use. They came in 5 varieties: Sunflower (super), Rose (regular), Poppy (pads-only), Tulip (tampons-only) and Hemlock for transgender men. There was also an additional mix of extra items in each pack.

She received so much help at one point that she had to start turning volunteers away. “There were too many of them trying to hand out packs all at the same time. It’s like 30 milkmen turning up at your doorstep to deliver 1 milk.”

Because she is running a registered charity, an important part of her work is to constantly stay within the legal framework. Donna explained: “We often have to reject cases. One example is the refugee agencies that often come to us. As much as we want to help, the way we are structured legally does not allow us to.”

Donna couldn’t remember the last time she had a day off. “I had a holiday in March and told my managers not to contact me, but in the end, they did. So I ended up laying in front of the pool in Bali still working,” she joked.

But even though she is fully immersed into her swarm of workload, she keeps her motivation up by constantly reminding herself about the good that it’s doing.

“When you own an organisation like this, you cannot have a break, and I accept that. But I built it in a way where I am aware of my limitations; therefore, I am still able to cope,” she said with enthusiasm.

Donna is thankful for the public for being so receptive. Seeing the comments and feedback coming from organisations and people, she realised the value of her work. “There are people who finally have one less thing to worry about, and if I take that away from them, it would be awful,” she commented, adding that life is so much better now compared to 12 months ago.

When asked about the sense of a tangible goal that she would like the project to reach within her lifetime, she reflected on her passion to increase the availability of the period packs so that everyone who needs them have access to it. She also has plans to increase awareness nationwide for both the public and homeless, because she firmly believes that she has a social responsibility to do so.

“Never look down on someone unless you’re helping them up,” she said.

Find Melbourne Period Project on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/PeriodProjectMelbourne

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