There’s nothing worse than realizing you’ve started your period and don’t have a tampon. Many of us can relate to what Amanda Seales describes in her 2019 comedy special I Be Knowin’ — “I just spent the last 20 minutes in a public bathroom fashioning a makeshift maxi pad out of a long-ass CVS receipt.” But the reality of access to menstrual care basics is, in reality, far more serious.
According to a national study, one in five teens has struggled to afford period products. Period poverty — or a lack of access to menstrual hygiene resources and education — affects many people, but BIPOC individuals, as well as incarcerated and unhoused individuals are disproportionately affected.
Pittsburgh City Paper sat down with Tamara Abney, founder of SisterFriend, an organization that fights period poverty, to talk about the lack of public access to menstrual products. She says menstrual equity is often not on people’s minds, which means it gets overlooked in budgets.
“You know, a lot of people, whenever I tell them about my organization, they kind of have an ‘aha’ moment,” she shares. “Even though I may be talking to a menstruating person, they're like, ‘Oh, I didn't realize that was an issue!’ So I think [it requires] stripping away a layer of privilege that some of us do have.”
SisterFriend was founded in 2015 to get pads and tampons to low-income individuals. They distribute menstrual and hygiene products to public schools, shelters, correctional facilities, and organizations across the county. Abney doesn’t understand why people should have to pay for pads or tampons when they're in public spaces.
“You know, it's almost like they're saying. It's your problem that you menstruate, so you figure it out,” she says. “Like, is it my problem that I urinate? Is it my problem that I have to wash my hands? Bathrooms provide toilet paper, they provide paper towels and soap.”
In 2022, the menstrual product brand Always name Abney the Period Hero for the state of Pennsylvania, and SisterFriend received 50,000 pads from the company. After they finish distributing those, Abney says the organization will be transitioning to focus entirely on menstrual equity education.
The SisterFriend website will become home to consolidated resources, so people know where to find menstrual products and services, and can learn how to advocate for budget allocations in their communities and schools. The website will also contain informational videos for young people starting their periods, and guides for parents who want to have conversations about menstruation.
Abney says the more that people talk about periods, the faster change will come. “As long as we won't say the words, as long as we're uncomfortable, then we'll continue to not pay attention to it,” she says. “So we should start talking about it, especially when a high percentage of the population has a period every month.”
In Pittsburgh, there isn’t just a lack of free tampons and pads, there’s a lack of public bathrooms. Here is a list of some places that offer free menstrual products and how to contact them.
The Big Idea Bookstore4812 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield. thebigideapgh.org. (412) 687-4323
This cooperative bookstore and cafe offers menstrual products in their bathrooms, as well as condoms and Narcan. They are open every day at 11 a.m., closing at 9 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and Monday, 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, and 5 p.m. Tuesdays.
The Free Store
420 Braddock Ave., Braddock. freestore15104.org. (201) 532-1722
Free Store 15104 partners with the organization “I Support the Girls” to provide menstrual products. They are occasionally available during shopping hours but founder Gisele Fettermen recommends texting the phone number above beforehand to check. Shopping hours are 10 a.m.-noon on Saturdays, and 11 a.m.-1 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Brookline Teen Outreach
520 Brookline Blvd., Brookline. brooklineteenoutreach.org. (412) 254-4590
This community center for teens keeps a supply of products in stock for students who need them, and stock enough that students can take extra home. They also include menstrual products in their free community pantry next to the building. The center’s hours are 3-6 p.m Monday through Friday.
Planned Parenthood of Western PA
933 Liberty Ave., Downtown. plannedparenthood.org/planned-parenthood-western-pennsylvania. (412) 562-1900
The Planned Parenthood clinic Downtown has a community pantry in their vestibule that is routinely stocked with tampons and pads, as well as canned goods. They also provide menstrual products to patients when they’re leaving their appointments. They are open 9:30 a.m.-3:30 pm Monday through Friday.
Steel City Food Not Bombs
pghfoodnotbombs.org. (412) 501-3359
This mutual aid collective has multiple distribution locations across the city — they offer hygiene products at Prevention Point, House of Manna, and Downtown Distro. They also have hot food, groceries, clothes, and toiletries.
Prevention Point, Hill District
Corner of Kirkpatrick St. and Bentley Drive
Wednesdays, 1-3 p.m.
House of Manna, Homewood
7240 Frankstown Ave.
Saturdays, 12-2 p.m.
Downtown Distro, Downtown
Corner of Smithfield St. and Sixth Ave.
Sundays, 2-5 p.m.
SisTers PGH2014 Monongahela Ave., Swissvale. sisterspgh.org. (412) 297-0548
Marsha’s Closet is a program of SisTers PGH, a community hangout that also provides clothing, toiletries, food, access to computers, and referrals to service providers. They offer hygiene products for trans men and nonbinary individuals. Marsha’s Closet is open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 10 a.m.-6:30 p.m.
Neighborhood Resilience Project
2038 Bedford Ave., Hill District. neighborhoodresilience.org. (412) 261-1234
The Neighborhood Resilience Project has a community pantry onsite which includes donated tampons and pads, that individuals are able to stop by and pick from. They also have a free health clinic and partner with local organizations to support violence prevention. It’s open 9:30 a.m.-4:30 pm Monday through Friday, and 11 a.m.-2.p.m. on Saturdays.
Penn Hills Library
1037 Stotler Road, Penn Hills. pennhillslibrary.org. (412) 775-4700
This public library has a thriving community pantry and fridge, offering fresh produce, meals, eggs, and milk. They carry pads on their shelves, as well as shampoo and soap. People are able to stop in during regular library hours and pick up what they need. The library is open 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Closed Sundays.