Homeless Periods: A Problem of Poverty, Dignity, and Feminine Hygiene
Homelessness Plus Menstruation Make an Unpleasant Combination
There are a lot of things I'd rather forget about from my time spent being homeless; my menstrual periods are certainly one of them. Periods aren't particularly pleasant to put up with anyway, but adding the complication of homelessness brings inconvenience to the level of misery.
Human beings strongly prefer to be clean. It affects how they physically and emotionally feel and how people treat them. When it comes to feminine hygiene, it also affects health.
You probably don't need to have all of these things spelled out for you if you have the imagination of a turnip but I'll talk about them a bit, just in case. I'm not going to pussyfoot around on the issues of poverty and feminine hygiene; I'm going to be frank, so if you find that offensive, hit the back arrow right now.
Why the Gruesome Photo with the River of Blood?
I thought I'd address the images I carefully chose and spliced to illustrate this piece because I've been questioned about it by a few who found it offensive.
Having a period while homeless is far more disturbing, upsetting, and crude than having a period while homed and possessed of all the gleaming white cotton and super-absorbent miracles modern society has to offer women. It's filthier than when one has largely uninterrupted access to hot and cold running water. On the street, it's an unpleasant reminder of vulnerability. Nothing else so absolutely ordinary reminds you that you have a vagina, something other people are quite willing to viciously harm you for, like having a period while homeless. Nothing feels the same disgusting, uncomfortable way as being sick and filthy and not knowing when you'll ever be clean. I wanted an image of raw and miserable vulnerability rendered with crudeness to illustrate all that.
If you are upset or disgusted by it, you are feeling just what I'd hoped you'd feel. It's upsetting and disgusting that homeless women don't have adequate access to the things they need for safe, clean, comfortable periods.
It was important to me that the image be horrifying, but still portray a woman who was handling an unpleasant circumstance with grace. That was so important to me because I've spoken to homeless women and I've been one myself. It saturates the color of my perspective. When you've suffered indignity heaped upon indignity compounded by lack of sleep and the apparent absence of all human love from your world, the only thing you can realistically hope to hang onto is a desire to handle what you can't avoid with grace.
I don't want any more women to have that be their highest hope in life. It hurts knowing that is the highest hope of millions. It's mere survival and everyone deserves to have a life when they're alive.
- The Homeless Period: it doesn't bear thinking about and that's the problem | Voluntary Sector Networ
Three interns set up a campaign highlighting the lack of sanitary products for homeless women – now they are taking it to parliament. #TheHomelessPeriod
Toilet Paper Doesn't Cut It, Folks
Women have been dealing with blood, fluids, and tissue coming from between their legs since before Homo sapiens was even a thing. Women have used moss, feathers, leaves, wool, natural fibers, old cloth, milkweed fluff, and probably dozens of other things to soak up their monthly spills of uterine lining. So you'd think toilet paper would be the holy grail compared to an old handkerchief or wad of reindeer moss. It is and it isn't.
The toilet paper you have in your home has been gently handled since you've gotten it, hasn't it? It hasn't gotten wet and it certainly hasn't gotten dirty. That stuff wouldn't be too bad for swabbing below the decks and plugging any leaks. It's still a pain in the arse to keep in place when used as a sanitary napkin and not easy to remove when used as a tampon.
But the toilet paper homeless women have access to isn't nice toilet paper; it isn't your toilet paper. It's often stored open in dirty back rooms or pipe alleys. It's been lugged around and just set anywhere before the maintenance person gets to the restroom. After it's been installed, it's been touched by strangers who've gotten feces, urine, or menstrual blood on their hands. It also receives a filthy baptism of vaporized dirty toilet water on it every time someone flushes.
You don't even want to wipe with public bathroom toilet roll anymore, now do you? Now imagine that definitely non-sanitary stuff making rude contact with the lady parts of someone you love. The vagina is like the perfect warm, moist Petri dish for growing all the bacteria that public restroom toilet paper brings to the panty party.
Irregular Access to Bathrooms
So public bathrooms aren't perfect and public toilet TP isn't the best for making hand-made tampons, but they do tend to have running water and a small amount of privacy. Unfortunately, most homeless people lack safe, reliable access to bathrooms for many reasons. Businesses close, government buildings close, public toilets close, and homeless shelter bathrooms have lines and other restrictions, assuming one can get into a shelter in the first place and chooses to do so.
Irregular, Often Dangerous Access to Showers
Showers are even harder to get access to than toilets. They're often just as unsanitary as the average gas station bathroom in a bad neighborhood, and may cost money to use.
So if you can't get a shower but once a week, you may start to develop a less-than-fresh feeling in your nether regions when the red tide comes in.
Feminine Hygiene Items Cost Money ... And So Does Food
I'm a big list maker. I prioritize things to hell-and-gone given half a chance. I consider an obsession with making the right choices both one of the benefits of autism and one of its downsides. We all have to make choices, but some of them are just too hard to properly prioritize when one is sleep-deprived, hungry, dirty, and blorping out bodily fluids that need hygienic disposal.
Menstruating homeless women find themselves with a nasty joke of a math story problem, and it has no correct answer, only slightly less wrong ones, often when they're in no state of mind to make good choices even if there were any.
I'll admit, I considered shoplifting tampons when I was homeless, and the math didn't work at all with less than a dollar in my pocket, but I could imagine all too well how upsetting it would be to be arrested for stealing tampons.
Homeless People Have Limited Wardrobes
If you get a bit of red on your designated period panties, you can change into another pair and spray the dirty ones with stain remover or even toss them in the sink for a wash. But a homeless woman will quickly run out of changes of whatever item of clothing gets stained if she has to carry all her possessions around with her.
Those little period accidents are a lot less frequent when you have access to enough pads or tampons to change them as often as needed.
Lack of Sleep and Rough Sleeping Increases Cramping, Pain, Fatigue and Headaches
A homed woman can go to bed at night with a heating pad or hot water bottle and an overnight pad with wings stuck in her most comfy granny-panties. She can take a Pamprin, maybe have a cup of hot tea and a nibble of dark chocolate, and go off to sleep in comfort in her favorite jammies.
A homeless woman may not be able to sleep at night at all because she's on constant alert for predators. She may already be sore from sleeping on the ground and she has no hot water bottle and no cupboard with a bottle of Midol and a selection of teas in it. Homelessness almost guarantees sleep deprivation, which is proven to harm pain processing.
Just When You Thought Menstrual Cramps Sucked Bad Enough; Sleep Deprivation, Common in Homelessness, Increases Human Perception of Pain
- Not Quite Enough: The Consequences of Sleep Deprivation | Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Med
An article about the health effects of sleep deprivation, including problems in pain processing.
- Sleep deprivation and pain perception
This paper explores the relationship between chronic sleep deprivation and pain.
How About Helping Out?
You can help the homeless women in your area deal with periods by donating pads, tampons, hand sanitizer, and cleansing wipes to your local homeless charities and food banks. You could also make and distribute hygiene kits yourself.
What to Put in a Feminine Hygiene Period Kit for Homeless Women
There are a number of options when it comes to making feminine hygiene care kits for women with insufficient access to running water. Kits should contain hand sanitizer and cleansing wipes. Instructions for use and disposal or storage of the items included in the kit are also a good idea. There are a few choices to make after that.
I've given examples of a few different kinds of kits to give you some ideas of how to make up a few yourself, if you so choose. Please keep in mind that these are just ideas and however you use them is good. I'm sure just about any homeless woman or girl would be thankful for whatever pads or tampons you give her.
These kits can be assembled in quart or gallon-sized Ziploc bags to keep their contents safe and dry.
#1 Super Basic Feminine Hygiene Street Period Kit
- hand sanitizer
- cleansing wipes
- a package of pads or a package of tampons
#2 Kit Idea
- hand sanitizer
- cleansing wipes
- a package of pads
- a package of tampons
#3 Kit Idea
- hand sanitizer
- cleansing wipes
- a package of pads
- a package of tampons
- a pack of panty liners
- a bottle of pain reliever
#4 Slightly More Eco-Conscious Very Basic Kit Idea
- hand sanitizer
- cleansing wipes
- a menstrual cup
- printed instructions for use
#5 Slightly More Eco-Conscious Period Kit Idea
- hand sanitizer
- cleansing wipes
- a menstrual cup
- cloth pads
- pain reliever
- printed instructions for use
The Types of Pads, Tampons, and Other Health and Hygiene Items I Think are Best for These Kits and Why
I think the thin, individually wrapped pads with wings are the best all-round choice for pads to include in a care package for homeless women and girls. They are less likely to chafe when a woman is doing a lot of walking and the wings help them stay stuck to panties through a lot of moving about. They also work for light or heavy days and the individual wrappers help protect the pads and keep them clean until they're ready to be used.
Overnight pads that are longer may also be advantageous because they provide more coverage, reducing the possibility of leaks.
While tampons without applicators may be better for the environment, they are a bit dicey to insert with fingers that may not be sparkling clean and minty fresh. So I'd highly recommend tampons with applicators that are individually wrapped in plastic to keep them clean and pristine as new fallen snow until needed.
Any individually wrapped, unscented panty liner with decent adhesive that covers most of the bottom of the liner is a good thing. Liners with very little adhesive coverage have a tendency to come loose, so they should be avoided. Scented liners can irritate and may not smell good to the woman who gets them. Scented liners also may serve as a reminder that another choice has been made for her in an already out-of-control world.
Any menstrual cup that's made of silicone and has an easy-to-grip removal stem would be a good choice. Silicone is good because the cup can be heat sterilized if necessary, it's pliable and long-lasting, too. Cups that come with sturdy storage containers are always a plus.
I recommend getting the clear, unscented hand sanitizer that comes in pocket-sized bottles without any colored plastic beads in it. Those plastic beads aren't doing the environment any favors and nobody wants to find little sparkly bits on her used sanitary napkin.
Forget the branded feminine wipes, get flushable wet toilet wipes instead. Those little feminine wipe packets seldom have enough cleansing liquid in them and the wipes inside are often tiny, folded things textured like hand wipes. The wipes intended to help people wipe their bottoms cleaner in the bathroom are bigger and softer and much better at cleaning things up. The unscented kind of whatever wipe you get is best as some people are sensitive or even allergic to scents, especially when used near delicate skin areas.
Period Pain Reliever:
Pamprin, Midol, Tylenol, Advil, and their generics are all pretty good for relieving menstrual pain. While one of the formulas intended for menstrual pain relief, like Midol or Pamprin, would probably be the most welcome, any pain reliever would be a blessing.
Should More Be Done to Get Pads and Tampons to Homeless Women and Girls?
Should something be done to help homeless women and girls deal with periods?
Menstrual Cups are a Great Solution But...
They aren't as permanent a solution as they should be. Keep in mind homeless people have a hard time hanging onto possessions. Their stuff gets lost, stolen, and ruined quite frequently.
Rebuttals and Preemptive Rebuttals of Some Ignorant Comments
These remarks are in no particular order and may expand to include rebuttals to more ignorant comments and questions once this article starts getting some more of its own. Most of these are based on remarks I've seen on Twitter and in the comments of other pieces on homeless women's problems getting the pads, tampons, and other feminine hygiene items they need. A few are rebuttals to comments made by people in response to this webpage specifically.
#1. If women chose not to be homeless they wouldn't have these problems.
This one is easy. I've already written an entire editorial about poor choices and homelessness and another about reasons people become homeless. How about you go give them a read?
#2. Why are you saying taxpayers should spend money on buying pads when it could be better spent on drug testing these women and training them how to flip burgers and stock shelves?
Give a woman a pad today and she'll be comfortable for a few hours hours; teach her how to flip burgers and she can interview for McDonalds with a wad of toilet paper in her panties and a trace of menstrual blood on her hands a few times a month until she's fifty-something. See how it doesn't really compare to the old 'give a man a fish' bit?
#3. Why not just let the job creators keep the tax money so they can create more jobs so no one will be homeless?
Just like 'thug' has become a code word used to replace the frowned-upon 'n-word' amongst those of conservative bent, 'job creators' is a code word for all wealthy people including those who will never put a single penny of it back into the economy if they can avoid it. We get it; you're against helping poor people on the public dime.
The article doesn't even talk about the public dime. It only guides people to see the problem and suggests how they can do something kind about it. I doubt the same people who would want to give feminine products to women and girls would be interested in giving money to corporations in the hopes they'll hire those homeless women instead.
#4. Shouldn't we be putting our efforts into stopping the human trafficking trade (or fill in any other cause in this spot) instead because it's much worse?
Ah, there's always something worse or more important, isn't there? I guess we all ought to just crawl under our blankies with our handguns and do nothing at all if we can't do everything. And, do tell, what can we do to help victims of human trafficking (or other cause)? There's no reason people can't direct their attention and compassion toward more than one thing.
There are also some things people are better equipped to help with. If I can't do surgery for underprivileged children because I'm not a surgeon, does it mean I shouldn't help construct a Habitat for Humanity home in my neighborhood even if I can hang drywall? Packing some feminine hygiene products in a Ziploc and giving them to every homeless woman you see doesn't require a lot of time, money, or skill.
#5. Doesn't Welfare already provide this stuff?
Nope. That's a big NO. Many homeless women in the US do not qualify for any aid but food assistance and tampons and pads cannot be bought on a food card.
#6. Won't homeless women abuse the pain medication?
There's really no recreational use for over-the-counter pain medication. You could kill yourself with it by overdosing on the Tylenol-based products but it is a very slow and painful way to die. We get it; you think the women should be allowed to suffer pain if they can't afford a home.
#7. Won't the women drink the hand sanitizer to get drunk?
Since the average woman would be so eager to use it for its intended purpose, it seems highly unlikely. If you think it's a real concern and not just your desire to treat them as lesser beings, you could add sanitizing hand wipes to the kits instead of the more convenient little bottles.
Why, of All Things, Write about Homeless Periods?
The question people really should be asking me is why didn't I do it sooner?
Homelessness really messed me up and I wasn't fully put together or even fully grown-up before that. Even before my parents left, I had issues dealing with periods. I have autism which interferes with my ability to interact with people already, but on top of that, I lived in some degree or other of poverty during most of my childhood.
Speaking up about my menstrual needs was never easy, not even to my mom, who was extremely empathetic and pragmatic. Part of it was my difficulty getting the courage to verbally express myself, but a lot of it was that I knew how tight the money was. I hated making my family spend money on me; I hated it so much I even tried to hide it when I was sick, so I wouldn't cost the family a doctor's visit. So when my period started, I tried to handle it myself, with wads of TP stuffed in to plug the flow.
I still felt bad about using extra toilet paper. I remember my dad saying, "Jesus Christ, Nancy, what's happening to the toilet paper?" and me feeling like a thief. It's a good thing he noticed, though. If my mom hadn't been a very perceptive woman and guessed at my needs, I might have never stopped tucking toilet paper into my underpants.
Something about how much I depended on the actions and rules of others to stay clean and comfortable during my period began to upset me when I got to Junior High and school worked differently than it had before. There wasn't enough time between my classes to use the bathroom, a situation complicated by many other girls also needing to use the same bathroom between classes, which created lines. Not all teachers allowed students to use the restroom during class time, either.
Even as I got older, went to high school, and grew more confident in dealing with period issues, it still made me feel like my body was out of my control, that embarrassment and humiliation were one wrong adjustment of the underwear or one poorly crafted question away. I was clueless.
I wore my pads oddly and they were the thick, cheap kind. When I heard the whispers of other girls saying they could see my pad I wanted to disappear. I tried cutting the pads down, removing some of their stuffing, and even wearing tight underpants over my underpants to try to squash the embarrassing bulge of napkin. None of those things were good ideas for a large number of reasons and they all lead to further embarrassment. Kids are brutal.
My body decided I didn't have enough embarrassment, inconvenience, and pain in my life or something round about my sophomore year of high school. I started having nasty periods that came with serious cramps and lasted ten days to a month, starting and stopping unpredictably. I started referring to them as question marks instead of periods because I never knew on any given day whether or not I'd be bleeding.
I went into homelessness already feeling lousy about my long, heavy, unpredictable periods. Then my life went to complete and utter crap.
My momma told me when I was little that I must always, always wash my hands with soap and water before touching my privates. When it came to teaching me to use pads, she reminded me of that advice. Since I was absolutely fascinated by science, I understood germ theory well enough to recognize the wisdom of her words and take them to heart. Within two weeks of losing my home, I was without access to running water, changing pads behind bushes, and wearing the same underwear for days in a row. I was also losing my mind as only a recently raped young adult with Aspergers and OCD wondering whether she's seeing menstrual blood on her hand or if the knife wound on it has reopened and bled through the bandage, can do.
Later, after a different assault, I drove myself nuts one evening trying to figure out if the blood in my underwear came from my uterus or from the healing knife injury to my privates. Me and homeless periods didn't get along so well.
I didn't even want to have a vagina, much less be reminded of its existence in an embarrassing way. But it's not like I, or any other woman, ever chose to be born with a uterus that sheds its bloody lining once a month.
So homeless periods are emotionally-charged and a little bit triggering to so much as think about. That's why it's taken so long for me to write. That's also why I feel it's a good thing to do.
It would have been a kind thing if anyone had helped me out with feminine hygiene products when I was homeless. Perhaps writing about it will help others who are looking for ways to be more kind, more aware of the human beings who need help within arms-reach.
Have You Ever Had a Period While Homeless?
Have you ever been homeless and had the misfortune to also be menstruating?
Period: Twelve Voices Tell the Bloody Truth - Coming May 8, 2018
Twelve authors from a wide variety of circumstances and walks of life, including me, talk frankly about periods of all sorts. I'm deeply honored to share space with the eleven other authors, and I hope this book helps many women and girls and spreads compassion with every reading.
© 2015 Kylyssa Shay