Menstrual Cups and Homelessness

We often get people messaging or emailing asking us whether we have thought about offering menstrual cups or reusable cloth pads to the women and Transmen we support. In short, yes we have! However there are several reasons why we don’t offer these as an option. Though we welcome the question as it allows us to explain a little more on what the experience of homelessness is actually like. Please note, this post is not at all meant to be condescending, we’re just trying to paint a picture of what life is like out there when you’re living on the streets.

It can be very hard to imagine what life is like without a home. Without a roof over your head, and without knowing where you will wake up each day and where you will fall asleep each night. When we see a person experiencing homelessness and imagine what that must be like, we tend to think of ourselves back at our own home, warm and snug in our lounge rooms, or safe and warm in our beds. And we imagine what it would be like to not have those things, to not have and feel that warmth and safety.

But when we see a person sleeping rough, it rarely evokes feelings that make us shoot back to a time when we were having a shower, or sitting in the privacy our own toilet, managing our period. Yet these are things people experiencing homelessness also go without. Their own bathroom, toilet, and privacy. As well as their own laundry facilities.

Menstrual cups are great, we agree! But they’re not so great when you’re sleeping rough and don’t have your own bathroom or toilet. Imagine having your period, but never being able to change, wash or sterilise your menstrual cup at home, nor at a friend’s place or at work. Imagine that every time you had to change it or clean it, you had to go outside, in the dark, and find a secret hiding place. Or walk around until you found a public toilet that was open. Perhaps find a bridge to hide under, or a park with a lot of trees you could hide behind to change.
Imagine you had to wait to find an open public toilet so you could dispose of the blood the cup had collected and then rinse it, without spilling it on the streets for other people to step in. Imagine you couldn’t wash the cup, nor your hands, before reinserting it, nor could you sterilise it, because you don’t have a bathroom, laundry or kitchen. Imagine taking the cup out and accidentally dropping it in the dirt, then trying to clean it, but you have nothing to use, before you put it back in again. Imagine trying to change your menstrual cup while you’re in a sleeping bag, because it’s 2am, pouring with rain and you’re sleeping under a bridge.

People rough sleeping don’t have the privacy of their own toilet when that cup decides to overflow. Nor do they have any means to wash, sterilise or replace the cup if they drop it or it just gets dirty. A tampon or pad can be easily changed in a sleeping bag without the person having to even unzip it. No need to try and dispose of the blood because it’s soaked up into the pad and can be put away in a disposable bag, to be thrown out when the sun is up and it’s safer to venture out.

How would you feel if you saw someone empty their menstrual cup blood into the public toilet sink you were lining up to wash your hands in, they turn the tap on and the blood from the cup splashes all over the sink, and they leave it like that because they’ve got nothing with them to sterilise or disinfect the sink with. Public toilets are the only places people who are homeless have to wash their cups. This creates a huge risk of cross contamination for the next person coming along and using the sink.

When people are rough sleeping, they tend to head to their safe place when night falls and they stay there until the sun comes up again. Being out at night can be extremely dangerous and women are at very high risk of attack and sexual assault. This is why we see far less women at night than we do during the day. They’re hiding for their own safety. Finding a public toilet to change their menstrual cup and dispose of the blood it has collected forces these women to come out from their safe place. This can compromise their safety as they can be easily followed back to where they’re hiding.

Tampons and pads are easy to change in a sleeping bag with no need to walk around to find anywhere to wash or change. Our Period Packs have disposable wipes in them to help clean up, plus hand sanitiser and a disposable bag. The used product can be stored without causing any damage to clothing or belongings, and there are no blood products causing possible cross contamination.

Prior to starting the Melbourne Period Project we approached women and Transmen who were rough sleeping and asked what they would like in the Period Packs. We also spoke to Doctors and a gynaecologist to ascertain if there was anything we hadn’t thought of, plus glean from their expertise and experience. Re usable products received a resounding no from all sides. Some of the other reasons I’ll outline below, but please note these do not apply to all people experiencing homelessness however given what we know about some of the causes for homelessness there are definite increased risks involved.

• Risk of infection due to the cup not being sterilised before use
• Increased contamination risk of blood borne diseases such as hepatitis and HIV through blood splash
• Sexual assault survivors may prefer products that don’t require insertion
• Cultural preferences to products that don’t require insertion
• Transmen may prefer products that don’t require insertion.
• Women in crisis accommodation centres have access to toilets and bathrooms however these are usually short stays and the women then find themselves rough sleeping again
• Embarrassment at lack of privacy and having to wash the cup in front of others in public toilets
• Inability to store the cup adequately and keep in sanitised between periods
• Public health risk with collected blood being poured in public places
• Limited laundry services to wash reusable pads
• Nowhere to adequately dry reusable pads
• Pads must be carried among the person’s belongings between periods. People have very little access to storage
• Embarrassment drying reusable pads in public.

What we prefer to do is to encourage people who aren’t experiencing homelessness to switch to the moon cup, or try reusable pads, and donate what they would have spent, so we can provide disposable products to a person experiencing homelessness.

Once people are in more stable accommodation, and they know they can stay in for a long period of time, menstrual cups and reusable pads become considerably more easy to use. We certainly understand their benefits and love the products ourselves, however they’re just not compatible with homelessness.

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