Living in a city like Portland, I am constantly exposed to homelessness. Their struggles seem infinite. They constantly overcome stigmas and struggle to simply find a place to lie their heads.
My first week in Portland, I found myself crying as I handed my last dollars to homeless people on the street, feeling a heavy heart for the souls I encountered on my walks.
As I spend more time in the city, I have become less observant. I waltz past the “Can you spare some change?” or “Can I bum a smoke?” with my headphones blasting, indulging in a cigarette.
Months ago, walking in my heels in Pioneer Square, a homeless woman in a wheelchair asked me for a few dollars with tears in her eyes. I handed her a $5 bill and told her to take care.
She smiled with sheer honesty as I walked away. Finally, I wept. I wept because this woman is spending the end of her life asking silly girls like me for a few dollars. I wept because all I could give her was the $5 bill. I wept because living in America as a woman can mean a lifetime of inequality, but living as a homeless woman in America means an entirely heightened level of inequality.
According to shelter20.com, there are 100 million homeless people in the world and most of them are women and children. According to endhomelessness.org, in January 2014, 578,424 people in America were experiencing homelessness, while 216,197 of those people were in families. The epidemic of homeless women all over the world is correlated to the deeply-rooted systematic discrimination women face everywhere. The United Nations states that women make up 50 percent of the world’s population, but only own 1 percent of the world’s wealth. Perhaps this epidemic of homelessness stems from the oppression of women.
Along with the horrible reality of living on the street, homeless women experience debilitating reproductive and feminine hygiene issues that people don’t often talk about or realize. Homeless women not having access to tampons is a major issue, and these women, because of the nature of their situation, often struggle to have their voices heard and their needs met. Experiencing a heavy flow while also trying to feed yourself and possibly your family would be an overwhelming situation to find yourself in. And with the high cost of pads and tampons, buying food would always come first.
The lack of feminine products for homeless women is an issue rarely spoken about. The reality is, talking about periods is taboo. When I was younger, girls would talk about their periods in front of boys and the boys were always grossed out, as if the female body is somehow grotesque. Among the many reasons homeless women are not getting the care they need is because people are afraid to discuss matters of the female reproductive system.
With the complete lack of feminine hygiene care for homeless women, the number of reproductive disorders rises. Along with not having access to basic products like pads and tampons, women with issues such as endometriosis, ovarian cysts and menorrhagia do not receive the attention or care they need. Reproductive disorders have the potential to cause terrible pain, heavy bleeding and possibly even life-threatening symptoms. It is imperative that society addresses these serious reproductive health and feminine hygiene problems.
I spoke to a homeless woman about her struggles and, with pain in her eyes, she said her utmost concern was finding food and a place to sleep. She also described the stress of trying to provide for her son. Finding reproductive care is a luxury for her and a sacrifice she struggles to have to make. I am familiar with the cost of tampons; I spend over $10 a month on supplies for my period. Even as a college student with a home, food in the fridge and supportive parents, I find it challenging to pay for tampons every time I have my period. I struggle with endometriosis, a reproductive disorder that keeps me in bed during my monthly cycle. I cannot even fathom the stress I would experience as a homeless woman.
I am asking my readers to support homeless women in Portland and to drop the taboo of the word “period.” Go to your local shelters and donate a box of pads or tampons. I understand the pressures involved in being a college student, but homeless women face painful struggles daily, and a box of tampons could provide a tremendous amount of support and relief. By accepting that the female reproductive system is not grotesque, we are making a big step on the road to equality.