Donations of women’s hygiene products at a major New York City homeless shelter for the year so far are already five times those for all of 2014, thanks to increased awareness among donors about the enormous obstacles faced by homeless women on their periods as they struggle to stay clean on the streets.
New York’s Care for the Homeless has received five large in-kind donations this year of more than 3,500 pieces of feminine hygiene products, from private individuals and organizations who collected pads, tampons and other sanitary products to help homeless women deal with their periods.
This often overlooked issue has inspired a similar campaign in the United Kingdom, #TheHomelessPeriod, which aims to raise funds to donate sanitary products to shelters and calls on policymakers to provide more products for free.
“We’re blown out of the water for this year,” said Rosanna Montilla, associate at Care for the Homeless, a nonprofit that provides medical care at 25 clinics catering to the homeless in New York City. “We received lots of interest.”
The campaign comes as the city is witnessing historic levels of homelessness. About 60,000 people are homeless in New York City, compared to less than half that number in the 1980s, when the city first started tracking this statistic, according to the Coalition for the Homeless. And more women and their families are living on the streets than ever before. There are more than 3,310 women in the city's shelters every night, grappling with restricted access to safe sanitary spaces such as showers and bathrooms and limited availability of menstrual products at shelters.
“It’s not one of the items that people automatically think of when they donate toiletries,” Montilla told Al Jazeera in an interview in January. “When you get to specific items like female hygiene products, you have to specifically ask for it.”
When Kendra Parker, one of the five donors and a member of the First Baptist Church of Crown Heights, New York, first read about the lack of menstrual products in the city's shelters, she rallied colleagues to donate and collected 3,000 tampons, sanitary napkins and liners during a drive at the church in February.
“You think about the plight of the homeless, but you don't think about hygiene and all the difficulties that [women] run into,” she said.
With few other options, homeless women have reported using rags they wash and re-use during their periods, or stuffing large quantities of toilet paper in their panties when nothing else is available. Maribel Guillet, a two-year resident of a Bronx shelter who said her period typically lasts about 10 days, told Al Jazeera in January that she had trouble working around her shelter's bathroom restrictions to accommodate her heavy bleeding. “Sometimes the lady's nice. Other ladies is not,” she said, referring to shelter supervisors. “Some of them won't work with you.”
A United Nations report also decried the “humiliation” women suffered at having to use the bathroom outside, exposing them to the risk of sexual assault and discomforts of changing their hygiene products when menstruating while homeless.
These concerns are widespread among homeless women across the world and inspired three campaigners in the United Kingdom to launch a petition and blog on March 26 to press Simon Stevens, chief executive of the National Health Services, to allocate funds for free sanitary products to women living in shelters, similar to a program that distributes free condoms to shelter residents. More than 80,000 people have already signed the petition.
“This initiative believes that tampons and towels should be made available through homeless shelters, the same way the government provides condoms,” a campaign statement reads.
The three people behind the petition, Sara Bakhaty, Oliver Frost and Josie Shadden, met as interns at an advertising agency, and put up cardboard signs at busy intersections in London to raise awareness about the particular problems of female homelessness. They read: “For homeless women, period pain is an understatement”; and “Just when you couldn’t feel any lower, your period starts.” The signs include the hashtag #TheHomelessPeriod, which has been used by other activists to launch fundraising campaigns for local shelters.
"We've been really inspired by those who have taken it a step further and chose to raise funds or donate themselves," Bakhaty said via email.
One of those activists, Sarah Wyatt, urged people to donate money to a GoFundMe account to buy menstrual products for women living in shelters. Wyatt, from Arundel, UK, raised $340 in three days, and said that the money "will go a long way to helping women who have to face their period whilst living in an already difficult situation."