Please note…the issues raised in this post also affect individuals who do not identify with traditional gender identification. Gendered nouns and pronouns were used in this post because the women whom I met, and whose experiences I reference in this piece, were cisgendered. It is important that I acknowledge that the inequities raised in this post exist for members of the LGBTQ community, individuals who identify as gender non-conforming, as well as individuals who identify as gender-fluid--members of these further marginalized communities must not be forgotten.
Volunteering for a local non-profit that supports homeless children in NYC opened my eyes to inequities that often exist under the surface--sidelined by the more immediate and pressing issues that families who experience homelessness face.
I was most shocked to find that most homeless shelters are independently run and are given federal grants administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development—meaning that our government has outsourced the responsibility of ensuring basic human rights to those that fall on hard times. This is why there exists a severe shortage of homeless shelters—it requires citizens who have enough time, money, and resources to purchase (or have donated) a building, start a non-profit, and apply for a federal grant. No matter how benevolent a shelter, they are simply not given the support, facilities, or resources to care for the growing homelessness crisis. Relying on donations and underfunded, the individuals who stay in these shelters have no other option but to take what the shelter can give; which, includes whatever food and goods (toilet paper, feminine hygiene products) that the shelter has (which are often donated).
Many of us see signs for "canned food drive" or "essentials drive" when the holiday season comes around. Giving back is a beautiful tradition that many workplaces, clubs, schools, and communities have incorporated; but, think back to when you picked up some canned food or essentials for your work's drive...you probably realized that the store brand was $2 or even $5 cheaper than the "all-natural" or "organic" brand. In an effort to provide as many resources as possible, you probably purchased the more affordable brand because it meant you could donate five products instead of two. I outline this because it is important to understand that the hidden issues facing women in homeless shelters are not necessarily the result of nefariousness or disregard; but rather, benevolence and well-intent.
It is also important to dispel a considerable misconception surrounding homelessness in America. The majority of homeless people in shelters are not drug addicts, criminals, or—and this is the most heartbreaking assumption—lazy. Almost every mother I met staying at one of the shelters I visited (this shelter services single mothers and their children) worked full-time or had multiple jobs. Many of the families were forced into a shelter due to an apartment fire (very common in densely packed areas where even high-end expensive buildings are minimally maintained). Even if the family had renter's insurance, many insurance companies would take months to pay out, and most would find a reason not to. Renting an apartment in New York City is nearly impossible even if you have a perfect credit score, references, and over 5k for the deposit and first month's rent. When a fire breaks out or finds oneself the victim of domestic violence, most of us do not have the funds readily available to find a place to stay in one day. Forced into these shelters, these women have to meet with social workers and many end up losing their kids to the foster system for a period of time—while social programs are supposed to be a safety net for a rainy day, they can quickly become a net that makes it difficult to get out of. How does this relate to feminine hygiene? The answer is in the intimacy of feminine hygiene itself. Victims of homelessness enter a "system" that is often dehumanizing. Their lives are changed by circumstances that are often out of their control. Yet, they are often blamed, stigmatized, and defined by those circumstances as they are no longer autonomous adults, but dependent recipients--defined by case numbers and food stamp deposits, Medicaid file numbers and unrelenting government forms, insensitive remarks and political talking points. The feminine hygiene industry is just now addressing concerns that women have had about their products for years—irritation, allergic reactions to harsh chemicals, dangerous side effects, and painful discomfort. Just because you are homeless does not mean that your body can easily absorb the trauma of heavy chemicals in your tampon or pad. Homeless women have often lost all of their belongings, finding themselves having to wear ill-fitting hand-me-down clothing while trying to interview for jobs or fight for their children back from the foster system. Underneath those clothes, many are forced to use hygiene products that are cheap, ill-fitting, and for longer than the safely recommended time, which feels violating and dehumanizing. If a woman runs out during her cycle, she can be confined to her home. Access to safe and healthy hygiene products means a woman doesn't have to fight through a tampon induced migraine while trying to work a long shift; means she can walk into an interview with confidence instead of humiliation that others may be able to smell the allergic reaction caused by the pad she is forced to wear that is full of chemical irritants; means that she gains her freedom.
The reality of our society is that it is not just the victims of homelessness that are victims to poorly made and dangerous personal hygiene products, unhealthy mass-produced food, poorly made clothing, lack of access to quality healthcare, badly maintained housing facilities, and stigmatization—a huge portion of our society would be unable to afford the $15 box of organic tampons (which, often does not last more than a couple of days), which is why millions of women currently have little choice but to settle for the $5 tampons. Our products, like our class wealth structure, rest in extremes where access to the products and foods that our bodies need is a luxury that few can afford.
The United States is the home of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet, we have not firmly established the realization of fundamental human rights in systems that can guarantee them when we have fallen victim to natural disasters, domestic violence, a medical condition, etc. There is happening a much-needed conversation about the inequities that poverty cause—from lack of nutrition causing issues with child development to the lack of resources that the child will also face due to poorly funded schools and the effect that these will have on the child's chances to climb the socio-economic ladder. However, there is a huge gap in this conversation in which women and young girls silently suffer physical and mental pain and discomfort that needs to be addressed. No female should be forced to stay home from school, miss an interview, try to learn, work, or fight for her children while in pain and discomfort because she was forced to insert a poorly manufactured tampon or wear a reaction inducing bleach-laden pad, or because she ran out of either before her cycle finished and cannot afford to buy more. When we analyze this most intimate disregard for providing women and girls in shelters with safe and effective feminine hygiene, we come to the painful realization that this society has more successfully created new obstacles to overcome than building avenues for opportunities.
Our government has outsourced caring for our most vulnerable but is active in legislating restrictions, policies, and requirements that directly affect homeless victims. I think it is no coincidence that there is another system to which our government has a very similar relation (outsources the responsibilities of management, facilities, care, and resources, but is active in legislating restrictions and policies that affect the individuals)--the prison system.
Logan is a law student who founded Do Well Be Well Inc.; A non-profit that works to support low-income and homeless high school senior students in the transition from high school to higher education. You can learn more about the non-profit here.