Homelessness casts a dark shadow over the United States, affecting over 560,000 Americans nation-wide. While homelessness presents the ever-present struggle to find food, shelter, and basic resources, women are particularly affected. With every month comes a new menstrual cycle and the challenge to find expensive hygiene products, privacy to change those products, pain relief, and regular laundry and shower sources. Without the basic resources needed to feel clean, safe, and secure, periods can be devastating for the over 210,000 women experiencing homelessness in the United States.
The average woman spends about $20 on feminine hygiene products per cycle, adding up to about $18,000 over her lifetime. Pads and tampons are expensive, and many shelters are not only overcrowded, but lack resources to provide more than a few items per menstrual cycle. However, the over-use of pads and tampons can lead to the deadly toxic shock syndrome, or wreak havoc with the buildup of bacteria. Alternative dollar store brands are often cheaply made and not durable enough to be a serious option. With the introduction of reusable feminine hygiene products comes the need to regularly sanitize them, and the privacy to change them- which can be a more involved process than swapping out a pad or tampon. Instead of hygiene products, many women are forced to create makeshift pads out of public restroom toilet paper or other wadded up paper products, exposing them to bacteria that can lead to yeast infections and urinary tract infections.
Periods are more than pads and tampons, however. There already exists an unhealthy narrative that menstruation is “unclean” which keeps the topic taboo and embarrassing to discuss for many women. Being physically unable to wash oneself and any soiled garments only makes these women feel worse. Many women also experience period irregularity, pain, cramping, bloating, and irritability that can be somewhat curbed with items like painkillers, birth control, and hot water bottles; all of which can be exceedingly difficult to acquire as a homeless person. Instead, many women find themselves curled up in pain without relief, sleeping on the streets. Overtime, the monthly inability to feel clean and secure can leave many homeless women in a depressive cycle of guilt and vulnerability.
This issue is especially relevant given the current COVID-19 pandemic which has uniquely affected homeless women in the last year. Those working in the female-dominated service industry have been especially hit with job losses and insecurity. A Massachusetts hospital has also found that a rise in domestic violence since COVID-19has begun. Though women are somewhat less affected by homelessness in general, they are far more likely to become homeless due to domestic violence, trafficking, and sexual abuse. Advocacy groups, such as the National Network to End Domestic Violence, are working to help prevent women from becoming homeless at all. Former NOW president Kim Gandy has just celebrated her retirement as President and CEO of this organization. Furthermore, NOW is dedicated to working for all women’s access to reproductive health care and health education, and lists Reproductive Rights and Justice as a Core Issue.
In summary, menstruation is not a choice, but a monthly struggle that can cause serious physical and emotional distress. Thankfully, some countries are starting to recognize this issue. The UK has formed a “period poverty taskforce”, and Scotland specifically has worked to make feminine hygiene products free and available to anyone who needs them. In the United States, The Healing Hands Project, Helping Women Period, and The Homeless Period Project are all tackling the issue head-on, but the public can also help by donating, volunteering to pack or dispense care products, or by simply sharing information on social media. Feminine hygiene products are a basic necessity just like food, water, and shelter. Every woman should have the right to a safe and healthy period.
Blog by Chloe Williams, NOW Digital Team Intern
At the Intersection of Vulnerabilities: The Plight of Women and Girls Experiencing Homelessness During the Global Coronavirus Pandemic:
Unsafe and Unwell: How Homelessness Affects Women and How to Help:
Menstrual hygiene plight of homeless women, a public health disgrace:
Getting Your Period Can Be a Pain. Getting It While Homeless Is Even Worse:
The experiences of menstruation by homeless women: a preliminary report:
Menstruating While Homeless: An Ignored, Inescapable Issue:
Study Finds Rise in Domestic Violence During COVID:
Period poverty: Scotland first in world to make period products free: