I didn’t want to see her. She looked disheveled—beads of sweat pooling on her brow, eyes yellowed, autumn jacket agape in the direct July sun. Her insistence that she be seen contradicted the stillness of the moment as I walked next to my new spouse. In my selfishness, I only wanted to see the pink and white flowers hanging from the Seattle lampposts, not the homeless who also exist in that space. This woman was unlike the other people we had seen begging. She didn’t stay seated with a cap next to her, eyes turned down. Nor did she hold a sign that said the world would be saved. Instead, she got right up in my face and made me see the details of her face, her black skin’s every wrinkle and pore. She wanted me see her in a way that said “feel what I’ve been through,” not just eye contact to acknowledge her presence. Would I give her that dignity?
“Do you have a quarter?”
I shook my head, stammering that I didn’t have any cash. It was the truth; I mostly exist in the world of ACH transfers and credit cards. She looked intently at my partner, likely wondering if he would give her the same line. Both of us moved to leave her behind.
“Please, I need it for [inaudible],” gesturing with two fingers in a forcefully graphic upward motion.
“A tampon. I need money for a tampon. Just a quarter.”
I searched my pockets. Nothing.
Part of me wanted to help. The other part simply wanted her to leave us alone. As I searched, my spouse found some change in his pockets, possibly with the same thoughts running through his head.
She lunged to hug him, wrapping her long arms tightly around his torso.
I then heard a high snicker mixed with a snort coming from behind me.
“Mommy, what’s funny?” a little boy of maybe six-years-old asked.
“He needs to shower now. ‘Cause she is dirty,” motioning to the homeless woman.
We moved on, rolling our eyes at the mother’s callousness, while at the same time knowing that we were no more understanding than that mother. I had had no intention of helping the woman until she forced me to see her struggles, and even then, I was reluctant.
As a white middle class person, I have been socialized to look past the homeless. Part of “stranger danger” training was also learning that it’s okay to avoid/look past someone on the streets as if they don’t exist. Learning how to be safe is a very, very important lesson, so please don’t think that I’m mocking these lessons! I just want to point out that we’ve learned to not see other people in the process—the same way we can look past our neighbors in the name of national security. My privilege as a middle class white person taught me that it’s okay to question how a person would use that money and decide what is and isn’t responsible. White people with means are *allowed* to perpetuate myths about homelessness by making quips like, “She’d just use it on drugs” or “He’d squander his food stamps on junk.”
Prior to this encounter, I had not considered that most homeless women do not have routine access to menstrual hygiene products. That’s the very definition of privilege! I may grumble about the $9.23 that I shell out for a box of 50 tampons with the smooth applicator, but I had never been confronted with the question, “What would happen if I couldn’t afford pads or tampons?” I have never had to go without. I have never had to think about going without. Even if I forgot to buy enough prior to my period starting, I could just run to the store or the bathroom and get one out of the machine. Menstrual supplies are yet one more item that homeless women (and some women in prison) have to go without that I and so many others take for granted.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, women make up 39.7% of the homeless population, and every month, women often choose between using the little money they can scrape together to buy menstrual supplies or a bit of food. Some use makeshift alternatives from public bathroom toilet paper (typically not as absorbent as toilet paper found in private homes), socks, rags, or napkins. Others try to stretch how long they can use a pad or tampon before using a new one, which increases risk of infection and Toxic Shock Syndrome.
Not only do homeless women has limited access to supplies, but they also do not have regular access to quality sleep, bathrooms, showers, change of clothes, all of which contribute to a heightened possibility of infection. In addition, homeless women don’t have quick access to pain relievers, hot water bottles, and countless other remedies that help alleviate period pain, cramps, and bloating. All of this takes money! For personal testimonies about this struggle, please watch this video.
Other blogs that have discussed this matter note that pads and tampons are infrequently donated to shelters because very few people, like me, even consider what it’s like to not have supplies. The focus is heavily on food, bedding, and clothing, which are all very important too, but these items are donated more often than menstrual supplies mostly because it’s a lot easier to talk about those needs. No one wants to talk about menstruation, but it’s not going anywhere.
Period silence is not restricted to discussing homeless women; it affects all women because our refusal to address women’s health concerns openly means that these concerns remain unaddressed and unknown by many making policies.
You can help by donating pads, tampons, and/or menstraul cups, as well as hand sanitizer to local shelters. Not all homeless women visit shelters because of safety concerns, so delivering care packages directly to a homeless person on the street can also be useful; for safety, it’s recommended that you make deliveries as part of a group during the day in public spaces.
Finally, let your representatives know that you support legislation, such as ending the period tax, that seeks to address access and cost of sanitary supplies.