On a recent May morning at a day center in downtown Seattle called Mary’s Place, a group of women sat together and eagerly discussed something that is rarely a topic of casual conversation. Peppered with an admirable sense of humor, their discussion revolved around challenges that many women take for granted.
“Periods don’t stop when you’re homeless,” one woman tossed across the table. Her comment spurred a wave of nods. “They sure don’t,” another laughed.
For those who have stable housing or are not facing poverty, menstruation typically hovers around the level of an inconvenience: getting feminine hygiene products means a short jaunt to the local drug store, accidentally bleeding on clothing means rushing home and grabbing extra pants, staying clean involves a simple nightly shower, finding an emergency bathroom means buying a latte for an all-access pass to the customer-only toilet at Starbucks, and enduring severe cramps means taking some Midol and curling up on the couch.
“When something is just an everyday part of your life and you have access to what you need, it’s not a big deal,” said Rochelle Calkins, program manager of Angeline’s, a YWCA day center.
But the common thread among the women at Mary’s Place, all of whom have experienced homelessness, is that without money or housing, menstruation becomes something altogether challenging and frustrating as well as a deeply-rooted issue of self-worth.
“It all boils down to dignity, pride and well-being,” said a woman who goes by Miss Quinett.
For homeless women, finding free and accessible feminine hygiene products when needed is the primary struggle with menstruation, said Annette Smiley, transitional programs case manager at Union Gospel Mission (UGM). Feminine hygiene products are seldom available for free outside of shelters and day centers, which women have to get to in the first place before undergoing an intake or check-in process.
All the women said they had improvised at one point or another. Rolled up toilet paper, Pampers, makeup pads, socks, rags, towels and newspapers were all on the list of items they had used. One woman at KentHOPE day center said she once snuck tampons out of a shelter and left them hidden for a nearby homeless friend who was not able to get in. Another at Mary’s Place said she once resorted to asking a mother outside of a Rite Aid to buy her tampons when she could not afford them and could not find a public restroom. Meanwhile, restrooms that are open to the public without a prior purchase are few and far between, and even fewer are stocked with feminine hygiene products, especially free ones.
“It’s a vulnerable subject, and for it to be a hard thing to access makes it worse,” she said. “It’s degrading to have to ask. You feel like ‘I’m having this problem and I’m under your power, because I have to ask you because it’s something that I really need.’ It’s embarrassing because it’s such a personal thing.”
A woman who goes by Frankie said she vividly remembers unexpectedly starting her menstrual cycle after work and desperately trying to find a restroom with feminine hygiene products. She said she tried at least five restrooms but could not find one with tampons or pads that would allow her to use it without making a purchase she could not afford. Soon, she was on the bus to Mary’s Place, praying she had not bled through her clothing and hoping to find a sweatshirt to tie around her waist. She calls Mary’s Place a life saver.
“It comes down to one question,” Frankie said. “How would you feel if you were out of feminine hygiene products for hours … or months?”
Ultimately, many of the women had endured the worst-case scenario of going without the products they needed and bleeding through their clothing. Marty Hartman, executive director of Mary’s Place, said there is rarely a morning when someone is not in line at 7 a.m. asking for a change of pants, a shower or feminine hygiene products. She said they give out about 125 products a day.
“It’s totally embarrassing and humiliating for them, and we know people will skip work or skip school if they don’t have what they need,” Hartman said.
For many women living on the streets, the need to stay clean and find access to a shower goes far beyond aesthetics.
“It really affects them,” Calkins said. “I can’t tell you how many women who have been out there for days come in and they just don’t feel good. They take a shower, and they feel better. It doesn’t fix everything, but being clean gives you a sense of dignity and humanity. It makes you feel human.”
At shelters for women, staff members said meeting the demand for feminine hygiene products, clean underwear and bras, as well as Depends for incontinence, can be a challenge. At most day centers, the supply is by donation only, and keeping up stock is difficult.
Kizha Davidson, spokesperson for the ywca, said tampons and pads are some of the items women who come in need the most, while Beth Yaeger, spokesperson for ugm, said the donation center manager reports never having enough feminine hygiene products to distribute. At Angeline’s, it’s no different.
“If we are low, we just tell women ‘We can only give you this many today’ and apologize. It’s really frustrating and hard when we are low on supplies and have to limit that,” Calkins said. When people ask her what the day center needs the most in regard to donations, they are usually surprised at the answer. “We say Kotex and tampons. People are shocked, because they don’t think about it.”
In addition to heavy bleeding, menstruation can bring along fatigue and severe cramps, which many of the women at Mary’s Place know from experience. If they can get to Mary’s Place, they say, they can find some respite: Midol and rest beds. But in the meantime, handling the pain can be more complicated.
Frankie described a day of homelessness when she was lugging her heavy belongings up a hill on a quest for shelter. She was enduring severe cramps, stopping every block to lean on a wall and breathe through the pain. For the first three days of her cycle, she said, the pain is horrible.
“I could barely move,” she said. “I would walk a ways, stop, walk a ways, stop.”
Other aspects of female reproductive health come into play as well. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, homeless women lack preventative care such as prenatal care, mammograms and pap tests. Quinett said she recently had a miscarriage that resulted in a uterine infection, and now she suffers consistent bleeding. That morning at Mary’s Place, she had used baby diapers because it was the quickest and easiest product to get during a busy morning.
Calkins said she worries about endometriosis as well as pain from ovarian cysts or other related problems.
“If I’m bleeding too heavy or am cramping so much I can’t get up, I can go to a doctor and I don’t have to wait forever, and I have a place to rest,” Calkins said. “This issue is so much more than a feminine hygiene product. There’s not a whole lot of access for these women.”
Beyond calling for more donations to shelters and day centers, the women at Mary’s Place said having more access to free feminine hygiene products, as well as public restrooms, would make all the difference.
Smiley said she believes access to feminine hygiene products should be a right. She imagined walk-up windows where people could get free products without having to sign in to a shelter, like a food truck in the park.
“It’s a health issue, and it’s a natural part of us as beings,” Smiley said. “It’s how we were created, and it should be handled like it is that important. Every woman should have access to it when they need it.”