How Accessible are Feminine Hygiene Products in SF?

A Lava Mae bus, where homeless people can take a shower.

The past few years have brought immense attention to the inaccessibility of feminine hygiene products in our country. In an effort to make these products more available for those who need it most, activists and legislators have fought to ban the tampon tax that many states still impose. A total of twelve states currently do not tax citizens for purchasing products like pads and tampons. Despite assembly member Cristina Garcia’s efforts, California is not one of them.

These states comprise of: Illinois, New York, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Oregon, Montana, New Hampshire, Delaware, and Alaska (although the last five did not have a state tax to begin with).

On February 13th, 2017, Assembly members Cristina Garcia and Gonzalez Fletcher introduced assembly bill 479 which would have exempted menstrual products from sales tax and instead placed a tax on hard alcohol (which does not include beer and wine). Although a unanimous vote was achieved on this bill, along with assembly bill 1561 of a similar purpose, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed them both.

Cristina Garcia has fought for many pieces of legislation to make these necessary products more accessible. Although assembly bills 479 and 1561 pertaining to tax on feminine hygiene products did not pass, assembly bill 10 did. This bill advocates for free hygiene products in public schools in California that include students anywhere from 6th-12th grade and that meet the “40-percent pupil poverty threshold”. This is a great achievement that eliminates a huge barrier to education for young women.

But an endeavor that is unique to San Francisco is its Shelter Standards of Care, which came out of the Shelter Monitoring Committee that arose in 2005. This committee plays a pivotal role in documenting and rectifying faulty behavior within shelters. According to item four of the Shelter Standards of Care, feminine hygiene and incontinence supplies must be available to individuals living in shelters. A few women who accessed services from shelters were interviewed about their experiences with accessing hygiene supplies on their periods.

When asked about where they obtain them, one woman answered: “I get them from A Woman’s Place”. Another woman mentioned places like St. Anthony’s or Glide as places she can rely on for hygiene supplies.

Additionally, homeless service providers give their clientele access to hygiene products upon request. La Casa de las Madres can provide up to five hygiene items per visit to clients that access services regularly. Project Homeless Connect can also provide these supplies when requested.

An ongoing effort that echoes the same sense of community responsibility that has set off others like it is St. Anthony’s annual Sanitary Tsunami drive. The goal is to collect 1,000 boxes/packages of tampons/pads by March 8th, intentionally coinciding with International Women’s Day. Community members are encouraged to either organize their own drive and send the products to St. Anthony’s, or donate so that St. Anthony’s can purchase them instead.


Rebecca Mattos who works for St. Anthony’s and participates in the Sanitary Tsunami drive speaks about the importance of this effort: “The inspiration for the yearly supply drive is centered in acknowledging the dignity in each person, and recognizing challenges many guests face in accessing bathrooms, showers, and other hygiene services. We see that tampons and pads are some of the most often requested and least available items at places like shelters and food pantries. The drive helps keep enough products on hand, and meet our guests’ needs.”

St. Anthony’s provides hygiene products to their guests through guest services, through which they receive five to twenty or more requests daily. They also provide hygiene kits from the Free Clothing Program which serves approximately 2,000 guests on a monthly basis. Rebecca states that this kit “includes a combination of about 10 tampons and pads in each bag. This may not be enough to cover one monthly menstrual cycle, so guests may come back in if needed.”

SF’s Shelter Standards of Care as well as St. Anthony’s annual drive demonstrate the ongoing efforts to provide feminine hygiene products in the city. However, the same homeless women who feel like their needs for feminine hygiene products are being met in San Francisco also criticize the lack of another necessity in the city.

Rita, a regular at A Woman’s Place, states, “I come here [to shower] but sometimes it’s not, you know, sometimes it’s broken. I wish there were more places for women to shower.”

She explains that there is limited access to the total of five showers, since two of them are reserved for families from 6 AM-3PM every day. In addition, one of the showers has been working on and off lately. Although A Woman’s Place has recently been renovated, wear and tear is bound to happen considering the average daily intake of 65 or more individuals using the facilities.

Of the few places that provide shower access, the women interviewed mentioned they also shower at MNRC and the mobile Lava Mae. For women who regularly access services from places like MNRC and A Woman’s Place, showering is more accessible than it is for women in encampments. Oftentimes accessing services means leaving their belongings, which can result in them being confiscated or stolen.

Showers are critical to one’s self-esteem, can be helpful in relieving abdominal cramps and back pain, and relieve general stress and tension that might accompany one’s period. Rebecca states: “To reduce the stigma faced by people experiencing homelessness and poverty who are on their period, we need greater access to bathrooms and showers, as well as subsidies for these items.”

The shortage of public restrooms and showers in San Francisco has been an ongoing issue that has yet to be resolved. The importance of these facilities does not need to be reiterated, and it is upon us as community members to make it known that we will continue to work for this change until it is implemented.

What You Can Do To help:

1.  If your neighborhood is short on public restrooms (and, most likely, it is) call the Department of Public Works and ask for more Pit Stops! If your neighborhood already has them, ask to extend the Pit Stop hours.

2. Educate others and speak out if somebody negatively comments on the way a homeless person looks, dresses or smells. Explain why we need more bathrooms and showers.

3. Sign St. Anthony’s petition, which calls on the City to provide toilets, showers and garbage service. Find the petition at here.