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It's one of the hardest parts of being a homeless woman. But it's rarely discussed.

Homelessness is a women’s issue in several ways: women are significantly more likely to experience poverty, and sole parents – mostly women – are at particularly high risk of homelessness.

Women living on the streets are also at high risk of sexual violence, rape, and sexual trafficking. In one study, 92 per cent of homeless mothers had experienced severe physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives, while in another, 13 per cent of homeless women reported having been raped in the past 12 months.

But there’s one difficult aspect of women’s homelessness not often discussed: the difficulty of getting your period while living rough.

homeless women and menstruation
“Gas stations and public buildings were my best friend, I’ll tell you that,” one formerly homeless woman said.

Maribel Guillet, a single mother living in a New York shelter, recently told Al Jazeera America her period, which lasts about 10 days, is extremely difficult to manage without a private bathroom.

Her heavy flow requires changing her pad “every 20 minutes” — and while she tries to wash at her uncle’s apartment over weekends, restrictions on bathroom use at her shelter, make menstruation particularly difficult for her.

“Sometimes the lady’s [shelter supervisor] nice. Other ladies is not,” she told Al Jazeera. “Some of them won’t work with you.”

Nation Swell cites another young homeless woman in San Francisco as saying: “I’ll never be clean.” Separately, a thread on Reddit about the issue reveals a similar sense of perpetual frustration.

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“Gas stations and public buildings were my best friend, I’ll tell you that. I took ‘whore baths’ in sinks at gas stations and did my period business in there,” one formerly homeless woman wrote in the thread.

“We called them ‘pirate baths’ but yeah, beaches and gas stations have public restrooms. Hand dryers with the nozzel twisted upside down= hair dryers, and paper towels= makeshift pads,” another agreed.

homeless women and menstruation
“I used lots of toilet paper and napkins, but you have to make sure to change it regularly,” one woman described.

Other formerly homeless women shared more detailed practical solutions involving socks, toilet paper and even towels.

“I used socks and other pieces of cloth, and washed them whenever I got the chance. If that was not available, lots of toilet paper and napkins, but you have to make sure to change it regularly,” one woman wrote.

Another described making a makeshift tampon using four or five squares of toilet paper rolled up tightly: “It’s gross and weird and pretty unsanitary, but it will keep your underwear clean, which is pretty important if you don’t have a drawer full of underwear.”

One formerly homeless woman recalled, “I would use towels but then I would have to wash them but (my food stamps) doesn’t cover soap.”

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Some had used menstrual cups as a solution, although there was debate over whether that was hygienic.

“I just splurged on a diva cup once and never had to worry about tampons or pads again,” one wrote. But another questioned the usefulness of such cups, writing: “Cups need to be boiled every month to sterilize them, which not every homeless person has. Public restrooms aren’t set up in such a way that changing them is convenient (you often have to leave the stall to go wash it out).”

homeless women and menstruation

Tampons and pads are generally not donated to homeless women because of their high cost, Al Jazeera America reports. While the Huffington Post points to society’s reticence to discuss menstruation in general — remarking that people who are in a position to help often aren’t even aware that such a vast need exists because the issue remains taboo.

This is the modern-day face of female homelessness. 

Campaigns like Essentials for Women of Perth or Distributing Dignity in the US go some way to assist: last year, that campaign collected thousands of tampons and pads for homeless women after a Facebook post by concerned citizen Lenny Jacoby went viral.

But it’s clear we still have a long way to go before homeless women can finally feel “clean”.

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