The Effects of Periods on Women Experiencing Homelessness
Catherine House provides crisis, longer term accommodation and support services to women experiencing homelessness in South Australia. Founded in 1988, Catherine House remains South Australia’s only homelessness and recovery service for women. They are our most recent ‘Pad-It-Forward’ Partner, distributing our product to the women they are currently supporting in their journeys out of homelessness.
Catherine House was founded in the late ‘80’s to respond to the very real issue of women’s homelessness; nearly 35 years on, the number of women experiencing homelessness is increasing at a rapid rate. Women now represent almost 50% of all people experiencing homelessness. When people think of homelessness, they tend to think of a man sleeping on a park bench, or perhaps a woman pushing a shopping trolley, but the reality is that only 7% of all people experiencing homelessness “sleep rough”.
Women’s homelessness is often labelled as ‘invisible’ due to women being far more likely to be sleeping in their car, couch-surfing with friends and family, or staying in an unsafe relationship because they have nowhere to go. It’s not often people actively see women experiencing homelessness publicly and it is for this reason they may feel it’s not as much of an issue. Perhaps out of sight, out of mind?
Let’s paint a picture of what women’s homelessness looks like …
For many of the women who so bravely walk through the doors of Catherine House, they have often experienced domestic and family violence, mental health issues, financial insecurity or a lack of affordable housing. Nationally, the most common risks identified for the women Catherine House support are domestic and family violence, mental health, suicidal ideation and general physical health. Last year, 26% of clients looking for accommodation identified as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, and 75% of new clients were aged between 25 and 54.
The intersection of menstruation and homelessness
Periods are often an unpleasant or an inconvenient time of the month for anyone who menstruates – let alone people experiencing homelessness. Many women experiencing homelessness are unable to purchase essential items during their cycle – from pads, to tampons and other period products.
How do women experiencing homelessness and menstruating cope, when access to a bathroom or using period products is not guaranteed? Often, they are forced to go to public bathrooms and use toilet paper, old cloths, rags or towels. These methods can often be unsanitary and lead to infections or other health problems. The reality is, having a period each month can be a significant health risk to someone experiencing homelessness.
Not only do periods physically affect women experiencing homelessness, they also have severe impacts on mental health and wellbeing. When women menstruate, they experience low moods, mood swings, and sometimes depression. We also know that those experiencing homelessness have higher rates of mental illness, as living without a safe and secure home can increase fear, anxiety, depression and sleeplessness. Combine the experience of homelessness with having a period, and mental health issues are even more of a risk.
Here in South Australia, we are lucky to have social enterprises like TABOO helping to provide period products to those who may otherwise be unable to afford or access them. In places like the United Kingdom, homelessness services receive condoms donated by the government, but period products are not guaranteed. #TheHomelessPeriod is a UK-based advocacy group who are trying to change this unfair policy.
Image sourced from: thehomelessperiod.com
Little academic research has been done on the intersection of homelessness and menstruation in Australia. A study in Northwest England on the “perceptions and experiences of impoverished women” found that focus group participants lacked the resources to manage their periods, which negatively impacted on their health, accompanied by stress, embarrassment and shame. The study recommended that access to free period products was needed across the country.
Menstrual health, like housing, is a human rights issue. Anyone who menstruates should have the right to products, water and sanitation infrastructure, and the privacy and safety that they need to hygienically manage their period.