Dec 10, 2015

Finding Feminine Products Often Frustrates Homeless Women

Reporting Texas


The Austin Resource Center for the Homeless keeps a supply of personal products that includes menstrual pads and tampons. Lea Konczal/Reporting Texas



Natalie Freeburg could tell that the woman was humiliated. People were snickering at her as she stood outside the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, on East Seventh Street downtown. Some in the crowd that hangs out at the shelter pointed at her pants, which were stained from her menstrual period.

Freeburg, volunteer and communications coordinator for Front Steps, the nonprofit that runs the center, recalls that no one offered help until she showed up.

“We quickly brought her inside and tried to get her products and a clean pair of pants,” Freeburg said. “But I think there’s a lot of shame around menstrual cycles anyway.”

That shame makes homelessness all the more challenging for women, whose access to hygiene products is limited. Groups such as the Resource Center, the Salvation Army and others get some government support for their programs, but that money goes to core operations. Donations are the primary way they get hygiene products for homeless women.

“The worst thing about being female and homeless is being on your period,” said Haley, another woman who has been homeless for two years and declined to give her surname. “Nobody here lets you use the bathroom. You have very few locations where you can change your tampon, where you can get pads … it’s really hard for females, especially at that time of month.”

She said she gets products from the Salvation Army when she can’t afford to buy them.

The City of Austin estimates that more than 5,800 people use local homeless services each year. The Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, which works with the city to reduce homelessness, estimates that more than 6,200 people received homeless services through the end of October, and that 30 percent were women. Nationwide, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates there were around 575,000 homeless in 2014, though it does not break down the number by gender.

Discussing menstrual periods long has been taboo in many societies, but recently the subject has received more attention. Kiran Gandhi, a musician and Harvard MBA,  made headlines in August for running the London Marathon while “free-bleeding” to highlight the challenge for women who don’t have access to feminine products. She said she also was protesting society’s discomfort with “a very normal and natural process.” Three London women started #TheHomelessPeriod, a Twitter hashtag for a campaign to secure government funding for feminine hygiene products for homeless women in the U.K.

In Austin, several organizations have stepped up to help meet the need.

The Sigma Lambda Alpha sorority at the University of Texas at Austin recently conducted a campus campaign for feminine products for Front Steps. The weeklong campaign collected 820 pads and 510 tampons.

“We just felt like this was something not a lot of people thought of, and it’s a very important thing that we need to be considerate of,” said Berenis Lopez, the sorority president. “People need to know that women need a little more than men, that they’ll always need a little more than men because it’s a natural process that they can’t stop, regardless of their situation.”

Austin Atheists Helping the Homeless holds monthly distributions for the homeless that include pads, tampons and wipes. About 40 percent of the 130 people served each month are women, communication coordinator Virginia Miller said. Women get just one tampon or pad at a time, she said, because of supply limitations. If there are enough, women can get two.

“It does get lacking at times,” Miller said. People will donate soap and shampoo, but not pads or tampons. “But since we’ve been requesting them a lot more, we’ve gotten a lot more lately.”

Freeburg, of Front Steps, said homeless women could benefit from the Diva Cup, a reusable silicone device that is inserted like a tampon and collects menstrual blood. But the women still prefer disposable products, she said, so she requests tampons and pads from donors.

“Feminine hygiene products are something that is consistent, that women need on a regular basis, and people just don’t think of donating them,” Freeburg said.

Haley, the homeless woman, is lucky in one respect: She has a boyfriend who’s not afraid of the menstrual taboo.

“My boyfriend is always asking, ‘Do you need anything yet? Do you need extra pants? Do we need to go to the store?’ He really makes sure that I’m taken care of,” she said.