The Bag Ladies
By Michelle Martin
Homelessness continues to be a serious crisis in the UK and worryingly the problem is rising rapidly among women. The charity St Mungo’s estimates that one in ten rough sleepers are women. The constant threat of physical attack or sexual assault forces many women living on the streets into hiding in order for them to survive and they soon become Invisible and marginalized.
Access to essential support soon becomes limited and they face steeper challenges relating to their physical and mental health which affects their dignity and sense of self worth and in turn they become the anonymous part of the homeless problem. But one lady is determined to highlight the issues homeless women are constantly facing by trying to help restore a sense of identity and femininity for those trying to survive on the streets. “Just because someone is homeless it doesn’t make her less of a woman,” states Tessa Philbert the woman behind the campaign to raise awareness for homeless women, “I wanted to do something to meet some of their basic needs, but also try to reaffirm their femininity which is often lost when a woman becomes homeless. I had loads of ideas of how I wanted to help these ladies but I just couldn’t think of one that would really support their needs at the most minimal level. Then one night last year I got talking to a friend about charity ideas and the conversation turned to handbags we laughed at the fact that we’ve got these handbags and we put the world in them!
Then she came up with a fantastic idea that she thought would genuinely help the plight of vulnerable women living on the streets” Tessa’s friend suggested that they should approach women to donate their old handbags filled with everyday essentials to give to homeless women living on the streets. “We’ve all got a handbag we don’t use at the back of our wardrobes” admits the busy mum of two, “I thought that we could ask women that we know to donate a handbag that they don’t use anymore, just to make it that little bit more personal. Filling them with toiletries and small gifts like chocolate, perfume or nail varnish, they we could given out, specifically, to homeless women across the many boroughs of London”
The initial response was great, with Tessa drumming up support from her work colleagues, friends and family and from her social media account.
“When I started the drive I was working in a school in Camden North London with a lot of female teachers and support staff, so that’s were most of my initial donations came from. Later, a few close friends came forward offering amazing support in terms of raising awareness of what we were doing.Then it started to move very quickly, the idea seemed to really resonate with a lot of people, in the end I ended up collecting thirty handbags and my friend managed to get about twenty.
The next part of the drive was trying to donate the bags. We wanted to give the bags to homeless women we saw on the street but they proved to be very elusive. We only managed to give a couple of the bags away to women that we walked by on the street because they were virtually invisible. So we got in contact with two homeless shelters, The Welcome Shelter in Ilford and a Women’s Centre in Whitechapel. They loved what we were doing and welcomed us with open arms. We were fortunate enough to meet some of the ladies that the bags went to and they were very thankful and surprised that someone had taken the effort to think, or even care about them. It was those ladies at the shelter who gave us our name.” she admits laughing, “They called us ‘The Bag Ladies’ and from there it kind of stuck”
The bag drive was a resounding success and Tessa was determined to do it again this year but unfortunately her friend moved away from the area. Undeterred, she decided to go it alone and again drawing on support from friends and family and her social media account. But this year she also got the support for one special little lady.
“When my friend moved away it was physically impossible for her to continue with the bag drive so my young daughter asked if she could help me as I was now doing it on my own. She came with me to give out the bags to the few women that we managed to see living on the streets.
I stuck to the same formula as last time asking women to donate an old handbag filled with essentials and the response has been overwhelming. The bags have been filled with some amazing feminine goods from basic sanitary care like flannels, facial wipes, deodorant, to scarves, books, perfume and gloves. This year some of the bags are going to the same Welcome Centre in Ilford, I called them up and told them we were back and they were really happy and was really looking forward to us returning. The others are going to go to Women at the Well in Camden, a centre dedicated to helping vulnerable women in the area. I chose Women at the Well, because I work in Camden and a lot of the bags have been donated from women in the area so its nice to sort of regenerate it back into the area where a lot of women donated. Going forward I would love to expand and to roll the program out nationally and not just targeting homeless women. Maybe vulnerable men next, or families affected by homelessness”.