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American students provide homeless women with free pads and tampons

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For women, menstruation is a natural and regular part of life. But for those experiencing homelessness, finding a pad or tampon can be harder than finding a meal or a new pair of socks.

Rayna Blackburn, who has been homeless on and off for the past several years, tells Portland street paper Street Roots how she would fashion her own pads when she couldn’t afford them or find any at local shelters.

“I took a towel and cut it in pieces and used a plastic bag to wrap them with… I would wash one, let it dry while I was using another so I could rotate.”

When turning to shelters for help, Rayna adds that she has sometimes been offered nothing but a paper towel. “I’ve seen [other women] take tampons and rinse them out and reuse them,” she says. “It’s not OK.”

Unsanitary products, a lack of clean spaces to change a tampon or pad, or using the same product for too long can all lead to serious and sometimes fatal bacterial infections, such as toxic shock syndrome.

Some shelters and aid agencies keep small supplies of pads and tampons on hand, but even then, they are available only to those who ask.

“These are really natural needs but the idea that these topics are private doesn’t only exist in the society but also within individuals,” says Nadya Okamoto.

The 15-year-old is one of eight high school students from Portland, Oregon, who founded Camions of Care, a non-profit that provides free feminine hygiene products to women living on the streets.

Since December 2014, it has delivered more than 350 care packages across Portland, which contain enough pads, tampons and fresh wipes to last a woman six days, the average length of a period.

The project aims to empower women and destroy the view of pads and tampons as mere “comfort items”.

Camion’s co-founder Giselle Cohen adds that, “if you don’t have the supplies to handle your own body, you can’t advocate for yourself in the same way. You can’t be looking for a job during that time. So that’s four to six days a month where you have to basically be secluded.”

Public support for the project, which now works with 50 volunteers, continues to grow. Street Roots is among many organizations now partnering with Camions of Care to distribute the packages

As of January 2015, Camions of Care expanded their service to homeless women in Salt Lake City, Utah through a partnership with Legacy Initiative. You can read more about their work here.

This is a summary of an article by Ann-Derrick Gaillot originally published by Street Roots. It has been made available to other INSP members via the INSP News Service. (Photo of Camion’s founders by Reuben Schafir).

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