The Red Burden: A Homeless Woman’s Tale

Homeless women on Skid Row that were brave to tell their story

Homeless women on Skid Row that were brave to tell their story

Martina Flores and Riley Arnold, Opinion Editor and Entertainment Editor

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Near Downtown Los Angeles in a city called Boyle Heights, Brittney and her boyfriend, “Spider,” live in a cramped, blue tent next to the Washington Boulevard Bridge. Both of them are currently homeless and repair broken bikes to make small cash for a living. Inside of their tent, there are two small levels in which the top half is closer to the bridge and the bottom half is closer to the river. There are dozens of bicycle parts and tools scattered on the ground, and they sleep just below the top half.

Brittney is only 17 years old and just like any teenage girl, she gets her period. Unlike other women, though, who are able to obtain feminine hygiene products easily because of their financial status, Brittney struggles to get pads and tampons on the regular. Occasionally, Brittney stumbles into any convenience store and buys a box of pads for three or four dollars. However, because of her lack of income, pads can just be too expensive.

Boyle Heights, California. On the other side of the bridge live more homeless people in lines of tents and makeshift homes made out of various cardboard boxes and tools.

“Sometimes I use socks when I run out of pads,” said Brittney. “But I make sure they’re always clean because I don’t want to get an infection.” She has big brown eyes and short curly hair, and it’s almost hard to believe that someone as young as her is dealing with the challenges that come with living on the streets.

The lack of feminine hygiene products for homeless women is not a rare case. According to Assemblywoman Christina Garcia of Bell Gardens, feminine hygiene products in homeless shelters are regularly overlooked, which results in a short supply of these needed products. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) even reports that roughly 56,000 homeless people reside on the streets, highways, and shelters in the city of Los Angeles. Of this population, though, at least 33% of them are women and of this percentage, most of them get their periods monthly.

The menstrual cycle’s pain is extremely underrated. It is more than just “bleeding for a few days.” Some women will acknowledge that getting their period is the worst week ever: back pains, headaches, nausea, chest pains, and cramps are the many symptoms that come with periods.

“On a scale of one to ten, I’d say that my pain levels are definitely a ten,” Brittney laughs as she

Denice W., 50, says that she has been homeless through most one her adult life and that she used to struggle obtaining tampons every month.

expresses her cramps are always painful. She explained that because she hardly eats or drinks water on a healthy basis, her period is irregular. So, the pain of her menstrual cramps are usually extreme.

Most homeless women hardly even have a warm, comfortable place to sleep when cramps become unbearable or don’t have a safe place to shower. Some use toilet paper in place of a tampon because homeless shelters lack feminine products and buying them can be too expensive.

“A lot of homeless shelters, day centers, and other homeless services simply don’t stock menstrual products, which is why menstruators using those services just don’t have access to menstrual products through these means,” stated Shailini Vora, project manager for multiple non-profit organizations. “We spoke to a lot of menstruators using these services that didn’t want to ask staff or volunteers for a pad or tampon as they were just too embarrassed.”

The taboo of menstruation is so prevalent in today’s society that it heavily impacts the way homeless women cope with their periods. Vora writes in her research paper, No More Taboo, that women are taught to be secretive about their periods resulting in more people tentatively shaming it or generally being disgusted with it.

According to Vora, the lack of feminine hygiene products in homeless shelters can be a result from the “taboo” of menstruation because products as such are not regularly thought as an essential need such as food or water.

Businesses, government buildings, public toilets close at a certain time preventing the homeless from having a place to wash or clean up. Even homeless shelter bathrooms have lines and other restrictions that many homeless women struggle accessing.  

“It’s survival of the fittest,” said Fletcher-Blake, a registered nurse. “A woman can’t pee behind a tree like a male can. A woman gets her period. It’s hard for her to wash up.”

Brittney explained that she is one of the lucky ones because she lives near a truck stop and usually washes up there. “It’s really convenient,” she said. Brittney hardly ever goes to homeless shelters, though, because she doesn’t want to have to travel long in order  to find a decent shelter when she can just buy what she needs at the corner store, no matter the cost.

The Downtown Women’s Center, an organization in Los Angeles devoted solely to serve and empower homeless women, sees about 200 women a day. The staff offers them meals, support groups, involves them in group activities, and even administers therapy to clients.

Laura Admans, who is the Health Program Manager for the health education and physical health departments, said, “The problem with these women using alternatives as pads and tampons is that it poses serious risks for infection. It’s just not effective.”

Admans explained that the center provides a sufficient amount of these feminine hygiene products so that they don’t have to turn to unhealthy alternatives such as toilet paper or old clothes. She continues to explain that the center is very beneficial for those women who struggle with obtaining a house and maintaining personal stability.

Jeanifer, 27, has been homeless for the past nine years and says that being a woman on the streets is extremely difficult.

Jeanifer, 27, who usually roams the streets of Boyle Heights, says that amongst trying to maintain health and find proper shelter as a homeless woman, menstruating while living on the streets is extremely difficult.

“I feel embarrassed whenever I’m on the bus because I worry if I stink, I don’t own a shower,” says Jeanifer. She also expressed that she has three kids who need to be fed on a daily basis and when her time of the month arrives, she’s stuck having to choose between spending her money on food or tampons.

Homeless women struggle by being on the streets, but because of their natural human body, they additionally have to deal with the pain of menstruation, societal rejection, and a lack of needed supplies.

Not only do donors overlook the need of pads and tampons, but they can be expensive, especially for those with very little to no income at all. A box of pads or tampons can cost up to about $7 and for someone who needs them monthly, for one week, for 40 years of their life, the cost adds up.

If this topic is changed from being looked at as a burden or taboo to being looked at as something normal, it could benefit women that are going through this in the long run. These homeless women are going through a lot in their lives and shouldn’t have to feel worse when talking about something natural with their bodies.

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