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Womanhood in the Streets

Updated: Jun 28, 2020

By Anya Miksovsky

Graphic by Madeline Lee, Graphics Editor

For the first time since 2010, homelessness in America is on the rise: as of December 2017, over half a million people across the country are homeless, with around 193,000 of those people unable to regularly access nightly shelter. Homelessness puts one at risk for a multitude of pressing issues. Because sourcing meals, clothing, healthcare, and a place to sleep on any given night becomes a challenge, numerous established shelters and organizations assist in providing these basic needs to homeless people.

However, for women living on the streets, there exists an often overlooked problem: every month, on top of the regular financial and mental stress that comes concomitant to homelessness, homeless women must bear the burden of figuring out where to procure menstrual products. Though neglected, the problem is pervasive: there are an estimated 215,709 homeless women in the United States, most of whom struggle to find sufficient materials to support their menstrual cycle.

Feminine hygiene products are viewed as a luxury, when they are, in fact, a necessity. But facing a lack of access, many homeless women turn to alternative methods such as using napkins, or cloth — an old t-shirt, or sock, for example — to stop bleeding. Jessica Sutherland, who first experienced homelessness at age 12, describes, “It was challenging to make sure there were menstrual products available to me, that we could afford them. I used a lot of wadded up paper products when there wasn’t money for tampons.” Furthermore, the inherent stigma around menstruation deters women from complaining or asking for better care.

Another woman who faced homelessness, Beth Tolbert, found it easier to steal menstrual products than to confront the issue. “I hate to admit it, but I would steal tampons when I could. I learned how to break into vending machines,” Tolbert says. “Menstrual products were a privilege, and I was conditioned to feel ashamed of my period.”

These techniques are not only uncomfortable or unpreferable but can often be unhygienic. Napkins can leak, and any cloths used must be washed regularly. It is problematic because many homeless people cannot frequently nor dependably access laundry services. For the same reason, reusable pads, which have occasionally been posited as a cost-saving solution, are also ineffectual.

Amy Stephenson, co-founder of the nonprofit Helping Women Period, explains, “For the homeless population, it is an actual health risk to not have access to clean pads and wipes. For all women, it is an issue of dignity.”

Given the alternatives, for many, it becomes a question of whether or not to sacrifice money for decent menstrual products that could be spent on a meal instead. A box of tampons costs around $7, but the cost can accumulate: over one’s lifetime, an average woman typically spends thousands of dollars on period-related products. This expense is especially burdensome for homeless people who are already under financial pressure.

23-year-old Taylor D., who spent 109 days homeless in San Francisco, explains how she had to budget her money during her cycle. “I… had to make decisions on what to spend the money on,” describes Taylor. “Do I want to eat and be full, or how can I ration my menstrual products so they can last the duration of my period?” Taylor goes on to express that she wishes “people understood that while donating clothes and other hygiene products is needed and greatly appreciated, pads, tampons, and liners are some of the most expensive products women face. It becomes a burden and a strain."

The problem doesn’t end with homeless women — it also extends to women in homes who live below or just barely above the poverty line. An estimated 42 million women in America are currently living in poverty. Despite the FDA’s official labeling of feminine hygiene products as “medical products,” the majority of programs available to low-income families, such as Medicaid and WIC (Woman, Infants, and Children), neglect to offer assistance.

Across the board, it is clear that things must change. Both local communities and governments must cooperate to provide assistance to the homeless. However, widespread change is unlikely to happen unless the public mindset shifts. The stigma around menstruation, which still persists today, must be confronted. The public must accept the fact that, for females, access to menstrual products is as vital as other necessities such as food and shelter. Homelessness is already cumbersome and stressful; the last thing homeless women need is the additional stress of sourcing tampons.


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