The headaches. The cramping. The back pain. The weakness. The fatigue. Throw in the emotional state of a top-notch rollercoaster and the type of fatigue that hits you is like a brick wall. The visible and non-visible symptoms of the work our body is doing, month after month. It's tough even with the comforts of home, but imagine periods for people experiencing homelessness? How do People without Housing Cope with Periods?
Picture this: you’re wrapped in your fuzzy blanket with snacks, Netflix series on rotation, maybe even a heating pad, dozing in and out of naps. When was the last time you thought to yourself, “Wow, I’m really thankful for all of this”? When was the last time you changed your tampon and stopped to consider “I’m really grateful for the privacy and safety of my washroom”?
Those of us who live with privilege take our period care for granted. If there is one thing that I’ve learned from my experience in the Ontario shelter systems, it’s that navigating a supposedly accessible healthcare system is exponentially more difficult when you are without housing.
Articles, policies, and most content around menstruating while homeless draw out common obstacles for those who bleed while living a transient lifestyle. Let’s unpack a few:
Lack of Privacy and Body Autonomy
Privacy while changing your pad or tampon is a fundamental right that goes hand in hand with safety. For those who depend on community centres or any public spaces for bathroom and hygiene purposes, the very personal act of changing a bloody pad is taking place in a space that is not the menstruating person's own.
For transient individuals living in camps, makeshift shelters, or far from a public washroom, the act of changing a menstrual product becomes even more dangerous. The individual is in a vulnerable state – physically and mentally – while in a space that is not their own.
Lack of Product and Options
Every vagina is different. Every uterus is different. Every individual’s hormonal composition is different. When we step into a store to get our own period coverage, the full aisles of different brands, choices, colours, and sizes is proof that every body responds to different products. For transient people who menstruate and rely on community donations for their period coverage, the choice, independence and autonomy are stripped away. Having a light flow and only a postpartum pad at your disposal just isn’t great. Having a heavy flow and only period liners at your disposal is a disaster in and of itself.
I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know a local woman who menstruates, who sleeps outside the area of our city’s community centre. She chooses to camp in her usual locations because of their physical safety (distance from foot traffic) and privacy. However, this means Jane cannot always get to the community centres to pick up period supplies. When Jane does attempt to stock up and get a pack of pads from the centre, they frequently get stolen along with her belongings before they’re even opened.
Pre-pandemic, some municipal buildings across the region began supplying free period supplies in public washrooms. These spaces were sometimes a closer option for accessing toilets and supplies. However, with pandemic closures, this option is off the table.
Many days, Jane uses large, wool socks folded in her underwear as pads. It’s 2021, and yet people have to use clothing items, stationary, and other common items in lieu of safe, sterile period products. This classist divide is not ok.
A World Where Warmth is a Privilege
While so many of us consider warmth and comfort – our bed, a blanket, a couch, all the above – as basic rights, it’s easy to forget that many people who menstruate do not share the same privilege. Individuals who do not have housing are frequently on the move. When chatting with Jane, she spoke about how constantly being on the move as a means of survival for her. With a backpack, a canvas bag, and the clothes on her back, she shifts her tent around the city for various reasons during the month.
On the most basic level, hauling items around outdoors while you menstruate is not an easy feat. More than that, ‘resting’ on a concrete or dirt ground – possibly damp and cold – is the reality of life even with heavy cramping and body aches. Jane mentioned during our chat how she would really love a couch and a blanket while on her period – soft and warm comfort items.
Accessing pain relief is nearly impossible for a couple reasons. First, locating a store and having the cash to purchase the items is a rare occurrence. Second, accessing alternatives such as cannabis is only socially acceptable when you are part of the middle-class.
The Bottom Line
The intersection of poverty, homelessness, and reproductive health creates a dangerous range of systemic barriers. Taboos surrounding periods, lack of financial support, physical safety, and the privilege of comfort are all repercussions of this intersection.
We can create and maintain open discussions surrounding the classist privilege of pads, blankets and ibuprofen. However, we should really dive deeper to discuss issues surrounding a lack of privacy, healthcare and bodily autonomy, and disempowered reproductive decision-making.
Let’s keep talking about the impact of these issues on the already vulnerable individuals who bleed while homeless. Until we grasp the immensity of period privilege, we cannot be the allies or advocates the menstrual movement needs.
About the Author
Hannah Legault (she/her) is a harm reduction worker, full-spectrum reproductive justice advocate, intersectional feminist and part-time writer. In 2018, Hannah launched the Canadian chapter of the Red Box Project. This non-profit provides a variety of period products to schools across Niagara. She is a member of the Society for Menstrual Research, Niagara Reproductive Justice, and the Harm Reduction Network of Ontario. She is currently working on her first book. Read Hannah's full bio here.
Shahiri, V., 2020. Homeless Menstrual Report. [online] Menstrualhygieneday.org. Available at: <https://menstrualhygieneday.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Homeless-Menstruation-Report.pdf> [Accessed 13 February 2021].
Shay, K., 2019. Homeless Periods: A Problem of Poverty, Dignity, and Personal Hygiene. [online] Soapboxie - Politics. Available at: <https://soapboxie.com/social-issues/Homeless-Periods-Suck> [Accessed 13 February 2021].
Weiss-Wolf, J. and Epstein-Norris, L., 2016. Blood In The Streets: Coping with Menstruation While Homeless. [online] Huffpost.com. Available at: <https://www.huffpost.com/entry/blood-in-the-streets-menstruation-homelessness_b_9019638> [Accessed 14 February 2021].