Menstruating While Homeless: An Ignored, Inescapable Issue

The winning idea of a public policy competition addresses a nationwide problem that makes many uncomfortable to discuss: menstruation and female hygiene.
by | April 2, 2015

There’s one thing that most homeless women can count on in their otherwise stressful and unpredictable lives: getting their period. And with equal predictability, those women struggle every month to cope with the pain of menstrual cramps and the added challenge of trying to keep clean without the benefits of a regular shower.

It’s one of the most overlooked hygiene problems for homeless women. A group of graduate students from the University of Georgia is trying to do something about it.

“When you talk about hygiene for the homeless, you talk about how [they] don’t have ready access to water or soap or toothpaste. You don't talk about feminine products,” said Brianna Roberts, one of four students developing a pilot program called (fem)me. The program would supply feminine hygiene products to homeless women in Athens, and, eventually, they hope, across the state of Georgia.

“Homeless women are already at risk for mental setbacks,” she added. “Not being able to maintain their feminine hygiene leaves them feeling helpless, ashamed and vulnerable, and that cycles them back into that depression.”

There are also public health concerns. Women who don’t have access to the proper materials have to resort to whatever is around -- like socks and rags that aren’t clean -- to absorb their flow and keep the rest of their clothes from getting soiled. Most women menstruate for between four and seven days. That kind of prolonged exposure to dirty and soiled items can lead to a vaginal infection, which experts say can suppress the reproductive tract’s natural defenses and weaken the immune system. That in turn can make a woman more vulnerable to the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus, which is a cause of cervical cancer.

The idea’s uniqueness was a key part of it earning top honors last month at the fourth annual Public Policy Challenge hosted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government and Governing. Graduate students from all over the country compete in the challenge to design a solution for a public policy issue of their choosing and pitch it before a panel of judges. Along with Roberts, Paula Buchanan, Nicole La Tournous and Phillip McAuley rounded out the winning team.

The winning team from top left: Phillip McAuley, Nicole La Tournous, Paula Buchanan and Brianna Roberts (bottom center). (Photo courtesy of (fem)me)

The Georgia students are working with several Athens shelters and agencies to launch their pilot program, which will provide hygiene products via “(fem)me kits.” Women will get a choice of three kits: sanitary napkins only, tampons only or both. Each kit will also include panty liners, sanitary wipes, Midol, hand sanitizer and a health message particular to women’s issues. The message will change on a monthly basis with input from the Athens Nurses' Clinic and other community partners.

As winners of the policy challenge, the team was given a $10,000 prize to start implementing their proposal this year with a testing phase this summer and a full roll-out across Athens planned for September. The region is home to many struggling residents. Two in five people in the consolidated Athens-Clarke County live below the poverty line, a figure double the statewide rate.

Shea Post, executive director of the Athens Area Homeless Shelter, is one of the city organizations that will distribute (fem)me kits. Post said her shelter often has women with daughters who are coming of age and that ready access to these materials can “change the entire experience for someone who is going through this for the first time.”

The University of Georgia team also wants to raise awareness about the need just from the mere existence of (fem)me. Their hope is that when (fem)me kits start appearing in communities, it will help potential donors to shelters remember that feminine hygiene products are just as in demand as things like soap and shampoo.

“I really commend the students for taking on a true need rather than a hot-button topic,” said Post. “It’s very practical, it’s very mundane, it makes a lot of people red in the face to talk about. But it’s a fundamental human need.”