Period Packs For The Unhoused
Build: Introduce yourself – How long have you been in DSA San Francisco?
Tiffany C: My name is Tiffany, and I’ve been a member of DSA SF since November 2017. I’m the current Vice Chair of the Homelessness Working Group, which is committed to fighting systemic violence against the most marginalized members of our community. Over the last couple years, we’ve worked directly with unhoused folks and advocacy organizations to raise awareness of the struggles of homelessness, and alleviate those struggles where possible.
B: What is the homeless situation like in SF?
TC: It’s one of the worst, if not THE worst, crises facing our city. The last point-in-time count in 2017 reported around 7,500 homeless people in San Francisco. That likely underestimates the real figure because the way we determine that number is volunteers going out on foot or by car on one night every two years and counting every person they see that “looks” unhoused. It’s not exactly a scientific method. The waiting list for a shelter bed is over 1,400 people long as of today.
“Dire” is an understatement. Not only are folks exposed to the elements and the physical dangers of being unsheltered, police constantly harass them to “move along” in what we call sweeps. The city frequently confiscates their personal belongings and bare means of shelter (e.g. tents, sleeping bags). Homelessness takes an enormous physical and mental toll on those experiencing it.
B: What’s in the period packs that you distribute?
TC: Pads, tampons, wet wipes, tissue packs, hand sanitizer, ibuprofen, nail clippers, socks, lotion, water and snacks, and a “Know Your Rights” pamphlet created by the Coalition on Homelessness containing information on what to do if belongings are confiscated by SF Police or the Department of Public Works. I wanted to help return a bit of normalcy and dignity to people on the street who can’t just walk into a store and grab some tampons, or lay in bed with a heat pack like I do when I’m on my period. Everything routine for a housed person is infinitely more of an uphill battle for a unhoused person; this is just one example out of so, so many.
B: How did you start the project?
TC: We’d done service events in the past like providing food. Actually, one of the first activities I participated in as a DSA member was helping cook a big pot of chili and distributing cups of it in the Mission neighborhood right before New Years 2018. During one working group meeting, someone floated the idea of collaborating with the Socialist Feminist Working Group to hand out menstrual supplies, and it took off from there. This was our first Period Packs event in March of 2018. SocFem put together a list of items to include in the packs, based on input from incarcerated students.
We set up a GoFundMe page and put the word out on social media. Within a day we hit our initial goal of $500, which blew me away! We ended up surpassing that and ordering around $800 worth of supplies online from bulk warehouse stores (not Amazon!). Around 20 volunteers consisting of DSA members and “DSA curious” got together on March 3rd, 2018 to assemble and distribute the packs. It was a great, lowbarrier way to get folks plugged into our chapter and our work. We went out in small groups to distribute the packs in neighborhoods known to have more unhoused folks: the Tenderloin, Bayview-Hunters Point, and SoMa.
We also contacted the Coalition on Homelessness for pointers on finding encampments, as folks are often “swept” by SFPD and forced to move constantly, which makes it harder for us to reach them.
B: What has the unhoused community’s reaction been like? The community generally? Local government?
TC: The reception from the unhoused community has been very positive. For Period Packs in particular, there wasn’t a lot of publicizing outside the chapter, so we didn’t hear feedback from the wider community or the local government. We got decent press coverage for our Survival Gear Distribution event of tents, tarps, ponchos, and sleeping bags during the bad rainstorms in early January/February, and for our smoke mask distribution during the wildfires. We actually ended up distributing more masks than the city itself.
The intent behind these service events is to make up, in whatever small way we can, the city’s shortcomings. It’s bittersweet. I feel such a rush of inspiration and affection for my comrades when they organize to distribute masks or tents within a manner of hours, but I’m incredibly disappointed by the utter lack of urgency toward the crisis from those who have the most power and resources. All of our events are powered purely by volunteer effort and individual donations. How much more could be accomplished with the Mayor and Board of Supervisors on board?
B: Do you have any anecdotes from handing out the period packs?
TC: One common theme we heard over and over when we went out was about police harassment and being swept. One person I talked with mentioned having their HIV medication confiscated.
B: How many packs have you provided to people?
TC: In March we handed out around 80 big ziploc bag packs, and in August we did around 120 in nicer fabric tote bags.
B: Do you plan on continuing the project?
TC: Yes! I’m aiming to do another Period Packs event by this summer. We’ve also discussed not just putting essentials in packs, but fun things too, like nail polish, makeup, and face masks. Just a little something, again, to restore some normalcy in people’s lives.
B: If you could request one “ask” from the city or state government, what would you ask for?
TC: My ask would be permanent housing, first and foremost. My biggest wish, however weird it may sound, is that we never have to organize another service event again because every person has their basic needs met. The dichotomy of housed and unhoused people, the haves and have-nots, should not exist. I often wrestle with the question of Period Packs being charity or mutual aid, but no matter what the answer is, I know that we are building solidarity with our unhoused neighbors and comrades.
To contact the Homelessness Working Group in DSA SF, email them at: email@example.com