Beth Tolbert was kicked out of the house when she was 17 years old. With no money and nowhere to go, she was homeless. For the next six years, she was one of tens of thousands of women on the street struggling to find not just food, shelter and employment, but also feminine hygiene products when she was having her period.
According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, the United States has the highest number of homeless women and children of any industrialized nation. Women account for 39.5 percent of homeless individuals and 29.2 percent of those who are homeless without shelter. That’s 51,488 people, up almost 1,500 from 2015.
Although women are more likely to receive housing than men, they face unique challenges. Homeless women like Tolbert often comply with strict curfews and receive substandard treatment in homeless shelters. Another particular challenge is coping with menstruation while homeless.
Homeless women face a multitude of issues, including abuse—92 percent of homeless mothers are believed to be victims of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. But some of the most frequently reported issues also include lack of or minimal access to feminine products, challenges in cleaning clothes during “accidents,” and general dehumanization.
Lack of access to menstrual products affects these women in different ways. Occasionally, homeless women are fortunate enough to be given limited resources, but in the most likely event that they are not, they often make due with other common items like paper towels, napkins, toilet paper, or even socks.
Tolbert says she would use toilet paper when she couldn’t get feminine hygiene products, which she usually couldn’t afford. “I hate to admit it, but I would steal tampons when I could. I learned how to break into vending machines,” she says. “Menstrual products were a privilege, and I was conditioned to feel ashamed of my period.”
It was no different for Jessica Sutherland, president and co-founder of Homeless to Higher Ed, and the marketing director at The Establishment, a media company that highlights marginalized voices through their featured stories. She can easily recall the hard times her own family endured.
“It was challenging to make sure there were menstrual products available to me.”
Sutherland says her living arrangements were spotty as a young child, but her most memorable experience with homelessness began with a summer visit to a relative’s house.
“My mom told me to pack for a summer at my aunt’s,” Sutherland says. But that summer stay lasted through the fall. “We left my aunt’s for a string of motels in November, and were in a homeless shelter by Christmas.” She was 12 years old.
“After that, it was a cycle of having an apartment for just long enough to get evicted, then motel hopping, then doubling up,” she says. “Always that cycle, year after year, until I walked into a foster home at 17.”
That same Christmas Day while she was living at a Salvation Army shelter in Cleveland, Ohio, Sutherland had her first period. Suddenly her transient life became even more difficult as she struggled to find pads or tampons.
“My mom was depressed and wouldn’t help me. 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,” she says.
Sadly, homemade solutions often make things worse instead of better. When individuals who menstruate are forced to make their own pads and tampons or use tampons for an extended period of time, they are at increased risk for infections and other harmful health conditions like toxic shock syndrome.
Menstruation can be messy, embarrassing, and painful for many women.
Tolbert and Sutherland’s struggles reflect systemic problems at the intersection of women’s issues, access to health care, and poverty. Menstruation can be messy, embarrassing, and painful for many women. But for homeless women, it’s an additional setback—financially and self-sufficiently.
Menstruation is costly. Pads and tampons cost. Feminine wipes cost. Pain medication costs. Replacing soiled clothing costs. The average woman in a developed nation spends about $18,000 over the course of her lifetime for period-related items. The cost can force menstruating homeless women to choose between buying a hygiene product or a meal.
But a small organization in Lansing, Michigan, hopes to change that for the women in their town.
Helping Women Period is a grassroots nonprofit organization that provides menstrual products to homeless and low-income women.
Since it was established two years ago, co-founders Lysne Tait and Amy Stephenson have distributed over 120,000 products, including pads, tampons, liners and wipes.
Stephenson says the lack of access to menstrual products affects homeless women and non-binary individuals’ ability to be self-sufficient. She provides this scenario:
For the homeless population, it is an actual health risk to not have access to clean pads.
“She wakes up that morning to her period and that is yet another impediment to getting to her interview,” Stephenson says. “How can she even attend the interview, housing appointment, doctor appointment without these basic necessities? 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.”
According to the organization’s 2016 annual report, donations have enabled HWP to acquire 69,337 pads, 64,834 tampons, 65,347 wipes, 27,146 panty liners, 5,210 bladder control liners, and 1,060 fabric bags. So far this year, HWP has secured 6,300 tampons, 8,000 pads, and 17,000 liners.
By partnering with local community organizations in Lansing, HWP has been able to fill its mission of supplying shelters and other places with feminine hygiene items, to help ensure that all women have the products they need, when they need them.
Since 2015, Redeemer Church has served approximately 4,000 women in need with the help of HWP. Once a week, those women can visit the church to pick up donated feminine hygiene prodcuts.
“We serve around 35-40 families a week, and when those families are choosing between food, heat, or personal care needs, Mom’s needs tend to be the last,” says Suzie Unruh, the ministry assistant and food pantry coordinator at Redeemer. “Thanks to HWP’s efforts, Redeemer has been able to assist individuals who menstruate with their personal care needs.”
Women have come out in large groups in solidarity to demand menstrual products.
The products HWP collects not only benefit those women who receive services from Redeemer, but many more citywide. Each month, the City of Lansing Human Relations and Community Services Department and the Greater Lansing Food Bank host the Mobile Food Pantry, which provides menstrual products in addition to free fresh and non-perishable food. Through their partnerships, they assist an estimated 400 families.
The support they’ve received so far has been tremendous. Co-founder Tait says women have come out in large groups in solidarity to demand menstrual products.
She believes women understand the immense stress of being caught unprepared for a period and that has played a role in their high levels of support. But many women had no idea how large the need for menstrual products was prior to being presented with the data and hearing personal stories.
“I took it for granted, for myself and others,” Tait says.
She says that privilege is an overlooked factor in access to resources. She has been asked, for example, why HWP doesn’t supply Diva Cups. But women need clean restrooms or other facilities in order to use many alternative products like Diva Cups, and those are luxuries many transient people can’t afford. Meanwhile, other women forgo alternative products for cultural or religious reasons, Tait says.
Stephenson believes that in addition to increasing access to products, it’s also important to spread awareness of this particular issue for homeless women. “The greater ‘meta’ impact is increasing the conversation around this issue to everyone in our community,” she says. “Even if HWP folded up tomorrow, people in our area would now know to donate pads/tampons to food banks and shelters, where before they did not.”
Leaving a lasting impact requires three things, she explains: using your natural skills, getting started, and most importantly being willing to look at the world through someone else’s experience.
“At 46 years old, it never occurred to me a woman would be reduced to going to a gas station and using toilet paper or a sock to get through a week on her period,” Stephenson says.
A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez is an award-winning writer, speaker, and activist working to amplify Black women's voices in the mainstream dialogue, especially within conversations on health and parenting. In addition to YES! her work has been featured in the New York Times, The Washington Post, Fast Company, and a host of other publications. She is also the founder of the #FreeBlackmotherhood movement. She can be reached at amfcontent.com for business inquires and social media for social connections.