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Individuals Experiencing Homelessness Face Challenges Accessing Menstrual Products

by CBJC Staff August 10, 2021

The article was produced by Meghana Gavirneni, a summer intern for the Legal Clinic for the Homeless.

For many among the approximately 45,000 individuals currently living in New York City shelters, menstrual products represent a basic and critical need. Lack of access to and affordability of menstrual products places a significant burden on the lives of those who are experiencing homelessness. It can impact their ability to work or go to school.

In recent years, New York policymakers have adopted measures to increase access to menstrual products. Intro. 1123-A, a New York City Council local law passed in 2016, aims to improve access to menstrual products in city homeless shelters. This law requires the Department of Citywide Administrative Services to provide a supply of “feminine hygiene products,” defined as “tampons and sanitary products for use in connection with the menstrual cycle” “sufficient to meet the needs of its residents.” In June 2021, New York State bill A529A/S6572 passed the Assembly and Senate and is waiting to be delivered and signed or vetoed by the Governor. If passed, this bill would require shelters in New York State to provide menstrual products at no cost to their residents. (While the aforementioned law uses the term “feminine hygiene products,” this article chooses to use “menstrual products” because not all individuals who menstruate identify with the word “feminine” and because “hygiene” implies that there is something dirty or shameful about menstruation).

While Local Law 1123-A and A529A/S6572 represent critical legislative steps in expanding accessibility to menstrual products, people in New York City shelters continue to face an array of challenges. In a 2021 publication in Reproductive Health, “Seeking menstrual products: a qualitative exploration of the unmet menstrual needs of individuals experiencing homelessness in New York City,” researchers explore these challenges through a qualitative interview-based study. They found that ongoing issues regarding access to menstrual products are caused by shelters’ inconvenient distribution methods and limitations in the type and quality of the products offered. Additionally, the researchers found that embarrassment on the part of some residents surrounding the topic of menstruation kept them from asking for needed products. Under these circumstances, many individuals experiencing homelessness resort to other, less sustainable solutions including purchasing products using their own limited funds and, in some cases, going without them or relying on makeshift solutions.

It is important to recognize that people in need of menstrual products who live on the streets, and do not reside in shelters, face additional barriers. As researchers in the study found, menstrual products are often not viewed as an essential item in “care packages” distributed by homeless service providers to unhoused people. These individuals may resort to panhandling, pilfering, and using makeshift products instead.

The City Bar Justice Center’s Legal Clinic for the Homeless (LCH) staff has also encountered the menstrual product accessibility issue in their work with clients. When asked, LCH clients living in homeless shelters did not know whether their shelter provided menstrual products and, of those who did know, many faced problems with the supply provided. One client explained, “I had asked for feminine products because I didn’t have any while on my period, and they only gave me 4 or 5 tampons. I had to take the tampons because pads were too small… I need something better than that.” Although New York City requires that menstrual products be available in all city shelters, it appears as though the needs of at least some residents are not being sufficiently or adequately met. The Legal Clinic for the Homeless will continue actively exploring how to effectively advocate for increased and improved access to menstrual products to ensure that all New Yorkers experiencing homelessness can obtain the supplies they need.

This informational resource does not constitute, or substitute for, legal advice.

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