I watched the homeless woman as I waited to cross the street. She sat with her head in her hands, shaking slightly. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen her around– she usually walks the blocks near the building where I work, with a vacant look in her eyes that says that somewhere, sometime, something worse than living on the streets happened to her. I had to pass her to get to my office; I thought about ducking into the breakfast joint down the street and grabbing her a biscuit. As I approached, however, I saw her real need. She sat crying, racked with quiet sobs, leaned against a concrete column, her head in her hands. Bloody paper towels, napkins and a lone used maxi pad lay piled next to her. Her khaki pants were around her ankles.
I stood, staring. I was paralyzed with shock, with concern, and, as ashamed as I am to say it, with a small amount of disgust–not necessarily with the gore or the obvious hygiene issue, but with myself, with how just a few weeks back, I’d stood in a store and complained to myself about the high prices of tampons. Prices I could easily afford, but complained about anyway.
Those same tampons, a handful of them, were in my purse. I didn’t count them as I handed them to her. I looked at her full in the face and couldn’t find anything to say. As soon as I turned to walk, I started crying. I sat down on a bench outside my office building, staring at my shaking hands, queasy with the thought of my privilege and my easy life and the tiny voice in the back of my head reminding me I’d be late for work if I didn’t go inside soon. I went back later, on my lunch break, and she was gone.
Women spend nearly 3,000 days of their lives on their period. That amounts to more than $18,000 spent on menstruation-related products over a lifetime. Yet discussing menstruation is a taboo subject–as women, we hide our sanitary products in our purse, our waistbands, even up our sleeves, to go to the bathroom at work. One woman recently chose to free-bleed while running a marathon–and many shamed her for it.
Tie all that together with the fact that approximately 25 percent of all homeless individuals in the U.S. are women. That is a significant number of women unable to afford the high cost of sanitary products while on their periods. Maya Oppenheimer wrote for VICE UK, “if you can’t muddle together enough money for food or shelter, it is unlikely you’ll be able to afford sanitary towels or tampons.”
Many shelters offer tampons and other products, but women are either too embarrassed to ask or are unaware of their availability–most likely because advertising it isn’t thought of, because of the taboo surrounding the issue. According to Al Jazeera America, “Many shelters and homeless centers hand their female residents female hygiene products, along with toothpaste and shampoo. But social workers said that pads and tampons are often harder to source from public donors.” The idea of a “typical” homeless person doesn’t fit with the idea one should donate tampons; we think of scruffy men, we think of children, but we never think of women on their periods.
Some homeless women resort to shoplifting, as discussed in the VICE story, but beyond that, they are left to make do with what most women would consider as emergency actions, what we were taught to do if we got our period, god forbid, in class in middle school: napkins, toilet paper or paper towels.
So what can you do to combat this issue? At an ideological level, don’t be ashamed of what 50 percent of the human population deals with on a monthly basis. Logically, it doesn’t make sense. When I was telling this story to a male friend, he pointed that out, saying, “It literally happens to every women. So why does no one talk about it, or think about it?” He was baffled, and not embarrassed at all that I brought it up. He just said he’d never thought about it.
There are ways you can help. A female student in Orlando, Florida, started a fundraising campaign to buy menstrual products for homeless women; look into beginning one in your area. It can be simpler than that, though: Make donations of feminine hygiene products to your local shelters. Everyone thinks of canned goods during the annual Thanksgiving drives at the office, and those are valuable–but try buying an extra box of tampons each month and dropping them off at the women’s shelter. Even one box could give a woman relief from one of the most awful experiences of her life.
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