PERIOD WEEK: Homelessness, Poverty and Periods

Joy Molan explores how a monthly inconvenience can become a living nightmare for the UK’s homeless 

This article is part of That’s What She Said’s ‘Period Week’. To read the introduction to ‘Period Week’ check out Maya Jones’ article: https://twssmagazine.com/2015/06/01/its-period-week/

In Clara Vlessing’s recent article, she reviewed the film Menstrual Man, which documents Arunachalam Muruganantham’s struggle to solve the menstrual hygiene crisis in rural Indian communities. Menstrual Man was both an inspiring story and a shocking exploration of the dangers of taboos and superstition which surround menstruation in some Indian communities.

As Clara noted in her review, “sanitary towels are used by seven percent of the country, and in rural areas a mere two percent. Instead, Indian women use rags, sand, sawdust, leaves or even ash, to stem their monthly bleeding. Rags are not always cleaned properly and are hung out to dry in shaded areas, far from the view of men.”

The issues faced by India’s rural population, such as social isolation and infection, may seem far removed from those who experience menstruation living in the UK. However the UK’s homeless population still face humiliation and the risk of infection on a monthly basis due to a lack of services and general ignorance surrounding homelessness and menstruation.

Whilst there are many wonderful charities that offer safe shelter and hot meals for the homeless, when it comes to answering their menstrual hygiene needs there are often few services available.

The desperate situation of Bristol’s homeless population was brought to the attention of the TWSS team at Talk.Period’s Global Menstrual Hygiene Day event, where Val Thompson, manager of Bristol’s Spring of Hope Women’s Night Shelter, explained the dangers of the lack of resources and awareness about the UK’s homeless menstrual hygiene crisis.

Spring of Hope Women’s Shelter is one of the few single-sex places of refuge for the homeless in Bristol, meaning that Val’s team deal with issues of menstrual hygiene on a day to day basis. Sharing her experiences managing the shelter, Val described the all too familiar sight of people desperately rushing to use the facilities upon arrival after being caught short without sanitary protection.

For those who visit Spring of Hope, they are reassured by the knowledge that they will be able to access sanitary products when they need them. But for many homeless people, they are not able to rely on their local shelter for basic menstrual hygiene facilities. As many homeless shelters are organised with the male experience in mind, those who come to some shelters whilst menstruating often face the distressing news that there are no sanitary products available.

Spring of Hope Women's Shelter

Spring of Hope Women’s Shelter

Unlike condoms, there is no standard practice of giving out sanitary protection at sexual health clinics and NHS doctors are unable to prescribe tampons or sanitary towels as they are not considered to be medical necessities. Whilst condoms are given out to prevent the transmission of STIs, tampons and pads are not given out to prevent vaginal infection. This strange paradox is not only absurd, it is dangerous.

Val admitted during the panel discussions that she often receives frantic calls from volunteers at other homeless charities in Bristol, who tell her that someone has come to them in need of sanitary products but that they are unable to help.

Access to clean toilets and running water is another distressing challenge for the menstruating homeless. Just as many children and teenagers in rural India drop out of school upon beginning puberty due to inadequate sanitary facilities, the UK’s homeless population have been forced to contend with the closure of most public toilets over the last decade. With once free public toilets now charging for use, McDonald’s is one of the few places where the homeless are able to use clean facilities.

Fortunately, Val’s shelter is able to provide Bristol’s homeless with clean facilities during their menstruation. But across the country, tampons and sanitary pads top the list of needs for homeless shelters and due to their ‘luxury’ price tag, are rarely donated.

Perhaps a long term solution for the menstrual hygiene crisis of the UK’s homeless would be ensuring that sustainable sanitary options, such as menstrual cups, are available. However, as previously stated, the cost of sanitary solutions limits the number of donations shelters receive, and with the average menstrual cup currently totaling at around £20, it is unlikely that they will become available at homeless shelters within the near future.

Val also pointed out the sanitary problems involved in reusable products:

“Where would these homeless women go to freshened up? Bristol currently have a few public toilets for homeless women to use […] It would be a disaster, a disease trap for those who may only have MacDonald’s toilets to depend on.”

Following Val Thompson’s insightful contribution to Talk.Period’s discussion of menstrual hygiene, it is clear that not enough is being done to provide free sanitary protection for an unavoidable biological function. Amongst the struggles faced by the homeless, coping with humiliation and risk of infection due to insufficient access to tampons and pads is needless and completely avoidable.

It is hard to believe that 84 years after the first commercial tampon was patented, there are those who are still forced to go without.

For more information, please visit: Spring of Hope Women’s Shelter and Talk.Period

Images: Matt Lyons and Spring of Hope Women’s Shelter

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