It's 7:00 PM on a Friday night. At a warehouse in suburban Oakleigh, Australia, 20 or so people are milling around, chatting, smoking cigarettes. It's cold enough to see your breath.
The group is made up of volunteers for Anonymous X, a collective that supports Melbourne's homeless. It's a pretty varied lot: a nutrition student, Amber, puts together high-calorie meal packs; another woman, Yvonne, heads out with pet food and coats for dogs.
The Melbourne Period Project (MPP) is a recent addition to the crew. Its co-founder, Nat, is stuffing a bag with period packs to hand out on tonight's run.
The packs, which could pass as bags of coffee beans, come in four varieties—Sunflower (super), Rose (regular), Poppy (pads-only), and Tulip (tampons-only). There's also a fifth option, Hemlock, for transgender men. Each has a month's supply, plus wipes, sanitizer, and, pragmatically, a chocolate Freddo Frog.
Once homeless herself, Nat explains to me that every month women sleeping rough have to resort to scrunched up newspaper, old socks, or toilet paper from public bathrooms. That or risk swiping a box of tampons from the supermarket.
Getting your period can suck at the best of times. When you're living on the street it's fucking horrific.
Tonight's first stop is Whitten Oval in Footscray. Home to the Western Bulldogs by day, tonight the field is pitch black and the gates are locked. A few people wait along the fence line as we pull up.
The Anonymous Xers help people pick through the meticulously labelled tubs, "Boy's Jackets," "Women's Boots, No Heel." If someone is after something specific, a volunteer will note it down for the next fortnightly run.
Mostly though everyone is just chatting. Some variation on How are you doing, mate? is the go-to when a volunteer notices someone looking for a hand. It's simple but effective, noticeably different from other outreach workers.
The next stop, Queen Victoria Market, is pretty quiet. There's probably more volunteers than homeless. A young Anonymous Xer, Meagan, explains it's likely because the council has asked people to move on.
Does that happen a lot? She nods. A few weeks ago Anonymous X's founder, Sean, tried to set up a tarp for a guy under Flinders Street Bridge. By the next morning it had already been removed.
"Would you rather there be tarps, or people dying?" she asks.
Nearby a group called Orange Sky is doing loads of laundry, with a washer and dryer in the back of a white delivery van. The team leader, Leroy, homeless himself for 17 years, proudly explains they can wash and dry in just 40 minutes, free of charge.
Over at the tubs a woman is looking for a pair of jeans. Nat bobs down to see if anything in the men's box might fit because the woman is pregnant, maybe six or seven months along.
In the car to Flinders Street, I ask Sean why he started Anonymous X. He's 28 and doesn't really fit the classic do-gooder profile. He says he had a bit of a lightbulb moment after his cousin died from an overdose. After that his life shifted completely, although it's something he doesn't really talk about.
"If I start telling people that I sold my house, I quit my job to do this, then they start believing in me," he explains. "I want them to believe in the cause."
At Flinders Street a couple of regulars show up. A woman named Susanne, who tells me she was recently featured in the documentary Homesick, smokes on a bench. She's trying to keep an eye on her friend Helen, who is filling Coles green bags with clothes.
"She's a legend, been on the streets for 15 years," Susanne says, craning her neck to keep Helen in sight. "I worry about her, though. People take advantage of her."
Nat explains that for women sleeping rough safety is everything; you can't just get up to change your tampon in the middle of the night. That's why MPP doesn't give out mooncups, despite the urgings of commenters on its Facebook page.
"It's very dangerous to leave your place once you've got it," she says. "Women, they are usually quite hidden away, because you never know who's following you."
By the end of the night, Nat tallies up a total of 16 period packs that she's given out. Around 11:00 PM a girl shows up, looking really young. She's carting around a huge backpack, and her pet rat, Dallas, is hiding out in her hood. Meagan, Nat, and another Anonymous Xer, Bianca, check in to see if she's got everything she needs. They take her laundry and make a note to bring rat food next time.
"I think a lot of my money will go to hotels the next few weeks," she tells me, as Dallas sits on my shoulder. "I want to get off the streets for a bit." I ask her if she's thought about staying in a hostel, it might be cheaper. "Can't yet," she replies.
It's only in the car on the way home that I realize, it must be because she's not even 18.
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