It’s Kailah’s eighth winter living in New York City, and for what may be the ninety-sixth time, she realizes it’s time to make a decision: “fast food or tampons?” The two may seem unrelated, but they cost approximately the same amount. And when you’re homeless, hungry, and menstruating, being able to afford only one of the two puts you in a precarious and deeply uncomfortable position. Do you walk around with makeshift pads and feed yourself? Or do you deal with an empty stomach in order to ensure you can’t feel period blood between your legs? A Bustle 2016 mini-documentary features homeless menstruators tasked with making the choice. "If you get cramps, good luck. For now, you could get a water bottle and some hot water from Starbucks, maybe steal some Motrin", Kailah explains. "[A box of tampons costs] more money than me and my boyfriend spent on a meal together," another homeless woman, Courtney, reveals, "I'd rather be full." Later, an assortment of menstruators reveal the alternatives they’ve used when food outranks tampons, pads, or menstrual cups: plastic bags, socks, cotton balls, makeup pads, tank tops, or toilet paper can be used as a barrier, a pad can be torn up and re-purposed as a tampon, and a McDonalds cup filled with water from a public bathroom park can be used as a makeshift-bidet.
The four or five New York menstruators who shared their story in the Bustle video are a microcosm of the homeless population dealing with “period poverty” (the lack of access to necessary menstrual products). The National Alliance to End Homelessness reports that in the U.S., a total of 552,830 people were experiencing homelessness on a single night in 2018: of these, 40% were women, transgender, or gender non-conforming. "Women in sheltered locations increased by two percent [from 2017 to 2018], and women experiencing homelessness as individuals in unsheltered locations increased by four percent. The number of transgender individuals increased by 22 percent, and was driven by an increase in unsheltered individuals", the U.S HUD announced in their 2018 report. In Canada, the situation’s not much better: a 2016 study conducted by the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness reports of the 235,000 people experiencing homelessness in a year, 27.3% were women (there was no information about those who identified outside the gender binary). The study found shelter stays were brief, around 10 days on average, 20 max, and that the percentage of Canada's homeless population who chose to use shelters was declining steadily over the last ten years.
The implications of those numbers are bleak, and they’re only complicated when accessibility of the supplies themselves comes into the discussion: most states in the U.S don’t consider tampons to be a medical necessity and add a sales tax to pads and tampons, jacking up their prices (you may have seen the campaigns to repeal tampon tax in both the U.S. and Canada), and the lack of locations folks can receive free supplies are dwindling. Shelters often fail to adequately stock and distribute period products, and, when they do, those who are gender non-conforming or trans are alienated by the concept that only women experience periods. So what happens when there’s a lack of products and you’re in need? Either the socks, plastic bags and toilet paper are used, and menstruators risk infections from unsanitary materials, or menstruators don’t change their tampons frequently enough, and risk toxic shock syndrome.
Though the situation is dire, a little satisfaction can be found from the fact that the visibility of the problem has increased dramatically. Last year, CNN rolled out an interactive Period Poverty Calculator that tracks how much of your life you’d miss if you didn’t have access to adequate supplies. British feminist group The Pink Protest organized a two thousand person protest in England with activist Amika George, and successfully convinced to the government to allocate £1.5 Million to combat UK period poverty. The 2018 documentary short film Period. End of Sentence shined a spotlight on Indian activists creating and distributing eco-friendly and affordable pads, and won an Academy Award for its efforts. On top of that, periods, housing insecurity, and their intersections are now regularly covered by most major news outlets. The impact of this increased coverage hasn’t been studied, but Coalition for the Homeless reported in 2015 that in four months, donations for products multiplied five times over in a NYC shelter after a spike in press.
For readers who want to join in the fight against period poverty, there’s a couple of steps you can take right now. Urge local groups who provide food or clothes to shelters and people on the street to also provide menstrual supplies. Start drives yourself and invite friends! Or support organizations like Period Org (co-founded by Nadya Okamoto after experiencing homelessness herself), Hashtag Happy Period, and the Period Purse.
Housing insecurity and period poverty are complex and systemic issues, but tangible steps to reduce them can be taken now.
Em Odesser is an eighteen year old writer and editor. You can read her work in Teen Vogue, Salty, Vice, W Mag and on her website emilyodesser.com, or say hi on her Instagram @emilyodesser!