The Misery of Menstruating on the Streets, and How You Can Help It Suck Less

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#HappyPeriod volunteers handing out sanitary products to homeless women (Photo: #HappyPeriod)

While rifling through the file of How Homelessness Makes Everything Just That Much Harder, we can now add periods. The media has been picking up on this lately, with two recent reports. Vice’s Broadly vertical (you can imagine what it covers) wrote up a short report on the sorry state of period care for homeless women and a baller group women working to change it. Meanwhile, in Life Tips on Medium, Jennifer Weiss-Wolf and Laura Epstein-Morris interviewed and photographed women living in homelessness about how they cope with menstruation, and described a different approach to helping.

One Los Angeles woman, Chelsea VonChaz, described the scene that tipped her off that something was rotten in the state of homeless menstruation:

“One day, I was driving through Hollywood, off of Third and La Brea. While I was stopped at a light, I saw this black woman whose clothes were completely tainted. I watched her cross the street and then stand behind a building. She squatted down and then that’s when I realized—she was on her period. The image of her never left me.”

VonChaz asked around at shelters to see what they had to offer women for that time of the month. The answer, it turned out, was nothing. Pads and tampons are the least donated items, so women make do with ripped up donated clothing, diapers, or nothing. When asked for sanitary products, shelter workers often just give away whatever they brought to work for their own use.

Upon hearing this, VonChaz started #HappyPeriod, an organization that hands out period kits to homeless women in LA’s notorious Skid Row.

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Chelsea VonChaz (center) with #HappyPeriod volunteers (Photo: Vice)

But it goes even deeper than the obvious hardships of bleeding without a net. Trans men, who are men who often still have uteruses that shed monthly linings, have an almost impossible time accessing necessary supplies. Shelters don’t want them (in 2011, 29% of trans people seeking to enter shelters were turned away; of those who were accepted, “55 percent were harassed, 25 percent were physically assaulted, and 22 percent were sexually assaulted”), and people giving out supplies don’t see them as their audience. After all, we so closely associate periods with women that to think of a man who bleeds every month is to make a cognitive leap so great you have to question what gender even is.

This might seem like a fringe case until you realize that trans people are some of the hardest hit by homelessness, with 1 in 5 transgender people having experienced it. Many are kicked out of their families’ homes for coming out, then face discrimination when looking both for housing and jobs to pay rent. VonChaz told Vice she favors giving supplies directly to people on the street so that men who menstruate but are discriminated against by shelters (or would put themselves in danger if they admitted needing these supplies) can still receive the care they need.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Lava Mae refurbishes old buses into mobile shower and toilet units, supplying all people living in homelessness a safe place to clean themselves, but providing an especially essential service to people who are menstruating. Doniece Sandoval founded Lava Mae when she overheard a homeless woman crying out that she would never be clean.

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A Lava Mae bus

A social enterprise startup called Conscious Period launched with a successful IndieGoGo campaign to employee at-risk women to make organic tampons. For every box sold, they will donate a box of organic and biodegradable pads to a woman in n

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A box of Conscious Period tampons

eed. While they are selling tampons, they chose to donate pads because talking to women living in unstable housing conditions showed that the insecurity of access to a safe, clean, and private facility needed to change a tampon made them often too difficult to use, while pads can be used for longer and minimize the hygiene challenges tampons can pose.

Periods are a subject close to (and pumped out of?? [Tangentially? Trying really hard to force a catchy connection?]) my heart. In addition to graciously accepting them as they are bestowed upon me in frequencies approaching but not equating a month, I used to work for Dear Kate, a startup that makes underwear engineered for periods. From writing PR pitches and thinking up marketing ideas (not to mention whenever someone asked me what I did), I got used to talking about this stuff. The more comfortable I got, the more frustrated I became by how freaked out the rest of the world seemed to be about them.

We need to stop acting like periods are a shameful, gross secret in the best case, and a frivolous nonissue that doesn’t deserve donated supplies and can lead to discrimination and danger in the worst.

I wonder, however, whether giving out single use sanitary products is a bit shortsighted. While it’s a bit of a miracle every time you can take off an old pad and make it disappear, especially for a group of people whose chore chart got stuck on laundry duty since its invention, the disposable period has its downsides. It costs a lot, as you’re sucked into forever buying expensive cotton wads to use for a few hours each. If you use disposable tampons (like 70% of American women) or pads, you’re unloading a ton of trash onto the earth, and for yourself, there’s the danger of constantly putting bleached, industrially treated pesticide-laden cotton or foam right on a porous membrane. But a trashy period is a recent invention of corporations (the Kotex disposable pad was introduced in 1921), and it’s one that’s time is hopefully on its way out.

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American women have been working to take back the period with inventions like silicon collection cups and wicking underwear, but our ancestors were on the case as well, using everything from sponges to papyrus to cotton-wrapped sticks to hanging out in a tent for a week or just riding out the flow. Non-western societies, meanwhile, have their own period traditions, and were only recently subjected to mass reeducation advertising campaigns to lure them away from their traditional methods so they could start buying American white cotton.

Reusable menstrual care could fulfill the needs of women living through homelessness more completely and sustainably than a donation of a few pads could, but there are obstacles. While Diva Cups and period underwear save you money on sanitary products longterm, they cost a lot upfront, making them potentially out of reach for people who could use the security of a reusable tool the most. They also require more upkeep than just a trashcan, which echoes the difficulty homeless people face in other supposedly simple tasks like cooking or teeth-brushing. Reusable cups require sterilization, which uses boiling water that women without homes can’t easily create, and reusable underwear requires cleaning and is mostly meant as a backup to a second type of protection.

Periods are tough, and periods without anything are basically torture. Getting anyone who bleeds the supplies they need should be our top priority, and that might very well mean disposable pads and tampons if those are what people can easily use. Help is only as helpful so much as it follows the actual needs and desires of  whomever you’re out to help. Going forward, however, if (and it’s a big if) shelters could provide sufficient sterilization facilities and laundry services and people experiencing homelessness want them, reusable menstrual products could mean the difference between a pad that lasts a few hours or a silicon cup that last years.

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Want to help out? If you’re in San Francisco, you can volunteer with Lava Mae. In New Jersey, you can volunteer with Distributing Dignity. In Florida, try The Period Project. #HappyPeriod also has chapters across the US. You can also donate to any of these organizations from anywhere. Or just pick up an extra box of pads, tampons, or Diva Cup the next time you’re at the drug store and drop them off at your local shelter or hand them to someone in need. After reading this article, I sent #HappyPeriod an email about volunteering here in Los Angeles, so I’ll let you know how that goes!

H/T to Darkmatter for sharing the Vice article on their Facebook page, and for this accompanying article on the possibly even more infuriating story of how prisons deny inmates adequate menstrual products

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