Poverty, Homelessness, and Start Me Up Niagara’s Period Promise

Posted May 6th, 2021 in Research and Advocacy

During the month of May, you’re going to be seeing some posts from Start Me Up Niagara encouraging our community to donate and participate in a vital initiative very close to our hearts. We wanted to take a few minutes to explain what is the #PeriodPromise; how poverty impacts individuals who are experiencing poverty or homelessness on their physical and mental health, on their dignity; and how the current pandemic has made it harder for our participants in the Niagara community to access the products they need to live with dignity, healthy and safe.

What is the Period Promise?

The Period Promise is a campaign led by United Way worldwide and locally by United Way Niagara.

Period products are a basic necessity. If you live in poverty or are vulnerable in other ways, access to tampons, pads, or cups can be challenging, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Period Promise initiative by United Way mobilizes citizens to be a part of the solution.

According to United Way Niagara’s website, the Period Promise is more than a product drive. The United Way advocates for those affected by period poverty by asking business and facility owners to sign the Period Promise Policy and commit to providing free period products to anyone accessing their facilities when it is safe to do so. Start Me Up Niagara is a safe and inclusive place for all individuals experiencing inequity and period poverty. We are a place where community members can drop off product for our partners at UWN or where individuals in need can pick up product safely.

We understand that many individuals, regardless of age, gender, or housing status in our community, may require these types of products. We pledge to be there for you when you are in need.

To learn more about United Way Niagara’s #PeriodPromise campaign, check out their website: https://periodpromiseniagara.com/

Female Homelessness and Period Poverty

One of the most frequent questions Start Me Up Niagara gets via social media and by email is what food or clothing items are needed most and right away. In the winter, that might also include things like blankets and sleeping bags but often overlooked are sanitary items, soap, shampoo, nail clippers, and female sanitary products. While blankets and winter clothing are always in need and their value as donated items can never be understated, these other products will likewise go a long way to preserving or improving the quality of life of those in our community who might be struggling with significant life challenges.

Period Poverty does not only impact those that appear or identify as female. Period poverty affects members of the LGBT spectrum and men. Sadly, it is not uncommon for transgender men to struggle with homelessness, poverty, health inequalities. Additionally, single fathers facing poverty and who have dependents requiring period products are also individuals impacted by these essential products’ high cost and unavailability.

Since their founding in 1966, the U.S.-based National Organization for Women has been advocating for action through intersectional grassroots activism to promote feminist ideals, lead societal change, eliminate discrimination, and achieve and protect the equal rights of all women and girls in all aspects of social, political, and economic life. They describe Period Poverty and the struggles facing homeless females this way, “while homelessness presents the ever-present struggle to find food, shelter, and basic resources, women are particularly affected. With every month comes a new menstrual cycle and the challenge to find expensive hygiene products, privacy to change those products, pain relief, and regular laundry and shower sources.

Without the essential resources needed to feel clean, safe, and secure, periods can be devastating for the 1 in 4 women experiencing period poverty in Niagara.

Menstruation and Mental Health 

Chloe Williams from NOW correctly explains that “periods are more than pads and tampons.” She explains, “[there is an] unhealthy narrative [that] menstruation is “unclean,” which keeps the topic taboo and embarrassing to discuss for many women. This makes it difficult for conversations between community service agencies like Start Me Up Niagara’s Resource Centre staff and individuals in need from starting when these types of issues arise. 

If you, a partner, or family member requires hygiene products, please reach out to Start Me Up’s staff at the Resource Centre, and we will get you the product you need or connect you with someone that can.

The anxiety that occurs each cycle never really goes away, and certainly not in the long term. During a pandemic, especially during a lockdown, knowing that you might not have the products you need to stay healthy and safe, not knowing where you can safely shower or wash only makes things worse. As Chloe notes, “being physically unable to wash oneself and any soiled garments only makes these women feel worse. Many women also experience period irregularity, pain, cramping, bloating, and irritability that can be somewhat curbed with items like painkillers, birth control, and hot water bottles; all of which can be exceedingly difficult to acquire as a homeless person.

What are some of the barriers women experiencing poverty and homelessness experience with health and hygiene?

The average individual spends about $28 on feminine hygiene products per cycle. This means that women who aren’t supported through government assistance programs have to make tough choices between eating, transportation, and purchasing products for this month. While for many of us, $28 might not seem like all that much, it can mean the difference between eating, being clean, or finding unhealthy alternatives to menstruation products.

Although many participants struggled with the financial aspect of menstrual management, this was trivialized in many cases compared to the emotional and painful effects of menstruation.

“[Menstruation] makes me irritable, it makes me tired, and it gives me back problems, and I can’t move, and obviously in the situation that I’m in at the moment, it’s quite difficult” – Cheryl describes herself as more emotionally sensitive and drained. In contrast, on her period, while acknowledging her situation as a sofa-surfer. She “can’t move” throughout her menstrual week while simultaneously having to be constantly mobile, changing from one house to another. This mobility undermines her ability to self-care and fully manage the pains and the stresses that she documents as part of her menstruating experience; her bodily vulnerabilities intensified through her homeless situation. (Shailini Vora, “No More Taboo: Breaking taboos around menstruation and sanitation. Empowering women”)

In Shailini’s research and reporting, many of her interviewees highlighted the ‘warmth and comfort’ as essential factors to alleviate negative symptoms of menstruation. Another interviewee named Naomi emphasized the significance of café spaces; when feeling dispirited, with painful menstrual cramps, she would “practically live in cafés. They’re warm, and they’ve got comfy sofas.”

Fact Sheet
  • One-third of Canadian women under 25 say they have struggled to afford period products.
  • It is estimated that Canadian women have to spend more than $6,000 on period products in their lifetime.
  • 1 in 7 Canadian girls has either left school or missed it entirely because she did not have access to period products.

COVID, Poverty, and Women Experiencing Poverty

This issue is especially relevant given the current COVID-19 pandemic, which has uniquely affected homeless women last year. Those working in the female-dominated service industry have been especially hit with job losses and insecurity. In a previous article published on our site, we noted that “the pandemic’s impact on our economy, our society, and our community are only now beginning to be understood. While it may take years for a complete picture to be analyzed and understood, we are already seeing the real impacts on our participants and the vulnerable in our homes and streets in St. Catharines and across Niagara. One disturbing trend that seems to be emerging in Niagara is the toll COVID has had on the youth and women working low-income positions.” Sadly, we found that COVID has hit women, particularly mothers with young children, the hardest. Further, this period poverty doesn’t only impact women experiencing homelessness, but it may be a genuine struggle for women working in low-income positions, the precariously housed, and single mothers.

The type of industries that have been hit the hardest in the Niagara Region is also the type of work most likely to (a) be low-wage work and (b) has impacted our young workers and women the most.

From United Way Niagara’s website, “COVID-19 has escalated and disrupted access to period products for many in Niagara. The economic impact of this pandemic is forcing even more people to prioritize other basic human needs over safe menstrual products.

Pads and tampons are expensive!

Many shelters and other community service organizations in Niagara and across Ontario are overcrowded and lack the resources to provide more than a few items per menstrual cycle. Sadly, the over-use of pads and tampons can, and indeed have been, leading to the rise in cases of deadly toxic shock syndrome or wreak havoc with bacteria buildup. As noted in some studies, alternative dollar store brands are often cheaply made and not durable enough to be a serious option. With the introduction of reusable feminine hygiene products comes the need to regularly sanitize them and the privacy to change them-which can be a more involved process than swapping out a pad or tampon. Instead of hygiene products, many women are forced to create makeshift pads out of public restroom toilet paper or other wadded-up paper products, exposing them to bacteria that can lead to yeast infections and urinary tract infections.

Overlooked, The Silent Crisis

The silence that surrounds menstruation has uneven consequences on homeless women. Menstruation is often overlooked and forgotten in reports addressing the health needs of homeless women. It, therefore, fails to come to the attention of policymakers and service managers. This inattention means that women without adequate financial resources must use irregular, and at times, potentially pathologically unsafe methods of hiding their menstrual blood. It is difficult for homeless women to talk to organizations, as it is deemed embarrassing, which transgresses the boundaries of professionalism. The material methods of managing menstruation are difficult, and menstruation’s emotional and painful experiences while living in precarious housing situations. Spaces such as cafés, day centres, and shelters are important for the participants as a safe place to rest while feeling the negative effects of menstruation, and some help to provide sanitary products.” (Shailini Vora)

How many women were served by this program last year?

United Way’s Period Promise campaign aims to reduce period poverty in Niagara by providing free access to appropriate products to anyone who needs them. Last year United Way distributed over 180,000 products in the community and helped thousands of individuals. All donations are given to local agencies, food banks, and service providers across the region.

In Toronto, “The city council’s executive committee voted on Monday to boost this year’s shelter, support and housing administration budget by more than $222,000. The money will be used to buy menstrual products and dispensers for city-run homeless shelters, drop-in and respite centres, and some neighbourhood community centres.” CTV News

Menstruation is not a choice!

But instead, a monthly struggle that can, and does, cause serious physical and emotional distress for those in our community. Thankfully, some countries are starting to recognize this issue. The U.K. has formed a “period poverty task force.” Scotland has specifically worked to make feminine hygiene products free and available to anyone who needs them. In the United States, The Healing Hands Project, Helping Women Period, and The Homeless Period Project are all tackling the issue head-on. Still, the public can also help by donating, volunteering to pack or dispense care products, or simply sharing information on social media.

Feminine hygiene products are a basic necessity, just like food, water, and shelter. Every woman should have the right to a safe and healthy period.

This post could not have been written without the fantastic work done by agencies and organizations worldwide. Based on reporting and research by Shailini Vora, Chloe Williams, and CTV News, and resources from National Organization for Women, United Way Niagara and Menstrual Hygiene (MH) Day. To learn more about core issues the National Organization of Women are advocating for, visit their website here: https://now.org/about/our-issues/

Yoppie has written their own comprehensive article on period poverty including a history of myths and taboos about periods and ways to help. Check out their article, "Period Poverty: What Is It & How Can We Help?" here

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