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Pads, tampons, cups, and more. All of these items were created to help menstruating women, but for homeless women, these items only cause despair.
April 12, 2022
T* wakes up to the sound of cars honking around her. Blinking her eyes, she stretches her arms and yawns. The air is fraught with the smell of gasoline. The crisp breeze is cruel and merciless, blowing scattered litter around and causing goosebumps to arise on T’s skin. Her head throbs, and her body is sore from spending the night lying on the hard concrete. It is only when she musters up the courage to stand, that she feels a sharp pain in her lower stomach, causing her to hunch over in distress. She closes her eyes and inhales shakily; her menstrual cycle has begun.
While that may not sound like a big deal to many, the conditions of T’s life dictate that her menstrual cycle is always an issue. A woman in her thirties, she is homeless, living with her dog Sweetie and partner on the streets of San Francisco. Unable to financially support herself, she spends her days searching for food and money.
T’s situation, however, is not unique. Studies done by the city of San Francisco show that over 8,000 residents of San Francisco are homeless, almost 3,000 of which are female.
During their menstrual cycles, homeless women rely on free cups of water from fast-food restaurants, the usage of public restrooms, and other public utilities to keep clean. Unable to afford necessary feminine products, their hygiene suffers and causes them to become much more vulnerable to diseases throughout the duration of their period.
Each day spent on their period is unpredictable and brings forth a new set of challenges. Homeless women constantly need to adapt.
“Every day is so different,” T said. “We get ourselves whatever it is that we need to [get to deal with our periods], and then we go get something to eat.”
T’s head throbs and feelings of nausea threaten to spill over. Her head instinctively turns towards her partner, who is still sleeping soundly. Scratching her dog’s head, she smiles momentarily.
“Sweetie,” she says before she feels another sharp pain in her lower abdomen.
Clutching her stomach, T crosses the street and walks down the road to the nearest Burger King.
Pulling the large double doors open, she steps inside the warm building, the smell of cooked potatoes immediately enveloping her.
As she awaits her turn in line, T thinks back to her life before homelessness. It wasn’t always like this.
It started to go downhill when mental health issues arose in T’s life, causing her to drop out of school. Left with no financial stability, T had to accustom herself to life on the streets. She now suffers from addiction as well.
When her turn comes, T steps forward and places her hands on the counter.
She asks for a cup of water.
According to Marlon Di, an employee at a local Burger King in San Francisco, around 10 women come in every day, each asking for a free cup of water. Some need it for their menstrual cycles, others just to stay hydrated.
They are usually dressed in tattered clothing and smell of body odor and gasoline.
Some come in holding the hands of their children, while others come alone.
Burger King’s policy is to provide anyone with a free cup of water if they ask for one. However, it is not illegal to refuse this. As California law states, as long as someone is not being unlawfully discriminated against, restaurants can set whatever policy they’d like, which includes refusing someone a glass of water.
“Some of [the homeless women are] with their children,” Di said. “[They’re] like, ‘Can you give me some water?’ and I’ll just give it to them.”
After thanking the clerk for the cup of water, T makes her way to the bathroom. She cleans herself as best she can, not wanting to occupy the bathroom for longer than necessary.
T grabs a few sheets of toilet paper. Layering them onto each other, she folds the corners upwards, creating a cup-like shape to hold in the blood.
Although T tries her best to purchase feminine products when her menstrual cycle comes, more often than not, it is simply not a possibility for her given her financial state.
Having access to toilet paper is also a privilege for T. She can recall many times when she’s had to rely on mere rainfall to keep herself clean during her menstrual cycle due to the high cost of feminine products.
“If I didn’t have to buy [feminine products], I would eat,” T said. “I would use [the money] for food and toiletries.”
One regular pack of pads designed for the lightest flow averages between $10 and $20, which forces women like T to think outside the box. Some use toilet paper, while others use things such as socks, cotton balls, magazines, and more.
These materials are often dirty and uncomfortable, resulting in rashes and various diseases.
Not all women use restaurant bathrooms to clean themselves. Some use public toilets like the ones at parks.
San Francisco has also recently converted a parking lot into a place for homeless people to stay. Tents have been put up over the entire area, and bathrooms with showers are provided to those who stay there.
“I do have access to showers during the weekdays,” T said. “But I have been without that access, and it was extremely difficult.”
However, the area, T claims, is mismanaged. Those with severe mental health issues are not allowed to stay there, and pets aren’t allowed either.
“I think it’s pretty unfair, the way things are handled in the system,” T said. “Specifically, people who have psychological or mental health issues are not taken into consideration at all.”
While T is still able to take refuge there, her partner and dog cannot. Not wanting to be away from them, she chooses not to stay there.
This predicament thins out T’s options drastically and makes her life that much more complicated.
“[There should be] standard, operating procedures for specific situations with people who have mental health on the record,” T said, in regards to the new area that the city has opened.
As she exits the Burger King bathroom, T’s lower abdomen is still throbbing. From experience, she knows that her cramps tend to become progressively worse as the day goes on.
Before returning to her family, T stops at a nearby drug store and buys some food. It costs her around $10.
With that money, T can afford to buy a pack of pads that will last her one menstrual cycle. Her choice is between hygiene for a week or food.
Being on their menstrual cycles also takes a toll on homeless womens’ dignity. They feel unclean and oftentimes unsafe, especially in male-dominated environments like San Francisco.
Having access to a homeless shelter helps them feel and remain safer.
Women who live in homeless shelters also have an easier time maintaining cleanliness while on their menstrual cycles. Almost all homeless shelters have bathrooms where women can clean themselves throughout the day.
Some shelters also provide food to those who stay there, which allows women to spend their money elsewhere without having to worry about their every meal.
Despite the aid of a homeless shelter, few homeless women are able to afford essential feminine products. Those who can, prefer to use menstrual cups because they last longer. However, they are less comfortable and can get extremely messy.
As night falls in the city of San Francisco, T exhales quietly, conscious of her partner’s sleeping form. This will be her daily routine for the remainder of the week, so long as she is on her period. After that, life will return to normal for T, living on the streets with her partner and dog, before her menstrual cycle arrives again in a month, and she has to go through the whole process again.
T is not the only one going through the struggles of being a woman during that time of the month. Eight hundred million women and youth worldwide are menstruating at the same time as T. The only difference is how many resources are available to everyone.
“Everyone’s just a paycheck away from being in the same position we’re in,” T said.
Homelessness and the struggle that homeless women face during their menstrual cycles are not just problems in San Francisco, however. Studies show that an estimated 2% of the world is homeless, which is about 154 million people. Over 44 million of them are female.
Another billion people live without adequate shelter. That number is predicted to triple by the end of 2050.
There are many organizations that focus on raising the quality of life for women like T. CityTeam San Francisco is one such example. With Angela Aguilar as its executive director, CityTeam works to provide housing, jobs, education, nutrition, and safety for homeless women.
“[San Francisco] is faced with new levels of overlapping challenges that strike hardest against women, children, and those who’ve been wrongfully marginalized,” Aguilar said. “CityTeam’s mission [is] to share our hearts, our time and treasure to build a better San Francisco for all of us.”
*This source’s name has been changed due to the sensitive nature of this content in accordance with Carlmont Media’s anonymous sourcing policy