Across the U.S., homeless shelters aim to provide essential resources for individuals in need. In many cases, as with shelters run by The Salvation Army, they advertise help that goes beyond the basic “necessities.” Some of these resources include food, water, shelter, and in certain cases, education and societal reentry resources. While these shelters promise essential resources, many do not offer one thing that is essential for over half of the global population: sanitary menstrual products.
The Cost of Menstruation
As of 2019, roughly 12 million women were living below the poverty line, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Especially for single mothers, survivors of domestic abuse, undocumented women, and more, finding a job offering a livable income and necessary insurance benefits is nearly (and sometimes is) impossible.
Amidst COVID-19, social distancing, and an economic recession, this hardship is intensified even further. Many of these homeless women rely upon shelters to at least give them a leg up in obtaining basic necessities. Although not all of these women menstruate, many need menstrual products. Unfortunately, many homeless shelters are simply unable to provide them.
To make things worse, for many, purchasing their own isn’t an option; menstrual products are expensive. According to a survey by OnePoll, on average, menstruators spend a total of $6,360 on menstrual products throughout their reproductive lifetime. Since many states categorize menstrual products as non-essential or luxury goods, “tampon taxes” can boost their prices even higher. So, when a person is already struggling to purchase even a single meal, they often must ignore the need to buy the menstrual products they need.
A Physical & Emotional Price
This leads to another kind of cost — a health-related one. According to Governing, homeless menstruators must often use tampons and pads for longer periods of time than is safe. Sometimes, homeless menstruators are forced to use other materials (such as socks and rags) in place of sanitary menstrual products. This can cause vaginal infections and HPV, which often leads to cervical cancer.
In addition, there’s the stigma surrounding homeless women in general. Many Americans hold the misconception that homeless people are lazy or dangerous. Also, homeless women are already at a higher risk of mental health complications. In combination with strong societal stigmas against menstruation, homeless menstruators can experience intense feelings of shame and sadness. This can intensify already existing mental health complications or create new ones.
Racism & Transphobia
This issue doesn’t come without biases. According to data from the National Alliance to End Homelessness, Black Americans make up 13% of the general American population, but over 40% of the American homeless population. In particular, Black women in America have a long history of distrusting medical professionals (rightfully so). This can lead to increased shame and an insufficient understanding of one’s own reproductive health. Often, white doctors are quick to dismiss Black women’s pain by saying that some of them just have “more painful periods.”
Plus, the simple truth is: not all women menstruate, and not all those who menstruate are women.
Across the world, both internalized and explicit biases influence stereotypical views of who menstruates should and shouldn’t be. Even the term “feminine hygiene products” indicates a trans-exclusionary bias by implying that all menstruators are feminine. On top of that, because of discrimination, family rejection, and violence, one in five transgender individuals has experienced homelessness at some point in their lives, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality.
Efforts to Change
Despite being heavily requested, menstrual products remain one of the least donated items to homeless shelters in the U.S., according to NBC. On average, homeless shelters provide only around two pads/tampons per menstrual cycle for homeless menstruators. Many feminist activist organizations state that “reproductive rights are human rights” and fight for an end to tampon taxes. This is certainly a step in the right direction. But for many homeless menstruators, these aren’t the actions that make a direct impact in their everyday lives.
Currently, Maryland is the only state that mandates free menstrual products to be provided to homeless shelters, according to the ACLU. Fortunately, organizations like PERIOD, a global, youth-run NGO, have taken action, donating over two million menstrual products to homeless shelters over the course of COVID-19.
Still, there is a lot of work to do before periods are totally destigmatized, and fair access to menstrual products is improved for all those who menstruate, let alone for homeless menstruators. And there is no time to waste; that work needs to be done right now.