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One small box of feminine hygiene products holds most of what’s available at the Shepherds of Good Hope homeless shelter. [Photo © Matt Olson]

In the tiny supply closet at Shepherds of Good Hope, Caroline Cox rummages through a small box of tampons and pads. This limited supply of menstrual products is barely enough to fulfill the most basic needs of the women living at the shelter and on the streets.
As the senior manager of transitional housing services, Cox oversees the various programs and services operating at the shelter.

Caroline Cox with Shepherds of Good Hope sorts through the minuscule supply of menstrual products in the shelter’s cramped supply closet. [Photo © Matt Olson]

She says her organization relies heavily on donations to help supply the products, especially between summer and Thanksgiving, when donations are low.
“It is an area that we struggle with,” said Cox. “Menstrual products are not a certain times of the year thing, they are always needed.”

Women at the shelter have not only asked for more feminine hygiene products but more variety, according to Cox, like jumbo tampons, light pads and everything in between.
“It’s about wanting the specific product,” she said. “Everybody should be entitled to what they want for their health and their hygiene.”

According to Cox, more funding from all levels of government is the solution to providing homeless women with proper access to menstrual products.

The federal strategy

The Homelessness Partnering Strategy is the only federal program that provides funding for organizations and programs that address homelessness across Canada. The focus is on providing stable housing for the homeless to get them permanently off the streets.
There are also various streams of funding from the provincial government that help pay for staffing, food, clothing and other supplies, but very little is left for menstrual products.
“I don’t think people understand the scope of the problem,” says Shelley VanBuskirk, director of housing services with the City of Ottawa. “This is a real issue for women.”

Shelley VanBuskirk, director of housing services with the City of Ottawa, called lack of access to feminine hygiene supplies for homeless women is “a real issue” in an interview at city hall. [Photo © Matt Olson]

For the nation’s capital, VanBuskirk and her team approve how the funding is divided amongst the shelters, and she says there is no direct funding from the federal government to supply these products to homeless women.
Often women have to forgo transportation or a meal to afford a week’s worth of menstrual supplies, and thus these products need to be more readily available, according to VanBuskirk.
Cox agrees. She says it is important for homeless women to have access to feminine hygiene products for their wellbeing and their future.

Frontline assistance

Chisomo Nguluwe aimed to do just that when she started her campaign Ottawa’s Homeless Period in 2016. She ran her first drive out of Algonquin College and provided the St. Joe’s Women’s Centre with menstrual supplies for three to four months.
“The more you engage people, the more they are willing to look into the issue,” she said.
On average, Nguluwe says she makes around 50 kits a month, which include a few pads, tampons, sanitary wipes and some chocolate to curb period cravings. With all of these supplies, she says it is about $10 to $20 per month for a woman during her period.

She has taken a break from her program for a few months because she started a new job, but says she hopes to get back into it soon.
“You have to keep people actively engaged,” Nguluwe said. “As soon as you stop, then people stop thinking about it and stop donating.”
When asked about the future of her project, she said she wants to be a constant safety net for multiple shelters across the city.
“If they run out of funding, I would like the campaign to be that buffer to come in and provide them with the products they need at that time,” Nguluwe said.

The following map is a representation of the women’s shelters in Ottawa. The colours show the target age groups for each shelter (red: all ages, purple: 18 years old and over, yellow: 12 to 20 years old, white: 16 years old and over)

The health risks

When homeless women lack access to these products, they resort to unsanitary methods, according to Brooke Thrasher who is a client care worker at Ottawa Inner City Health.
“If you don’t have any funds, you’re using t-shirts or wads of toilet paper or socks—anything you can use to absorb [the blood],” she said.
They become more susceptible to diseases like toxic shock syndrome and bacterial vaginosis due to the lack of hygiene and limited access to clean running water.
Thrasher created the campaign Tampons for TED in collaboration with Shepherds of Good Hope in 2013 because both facilities regularly ran out of supplies. The program raised money for four years and even though it is not currently running, Thrasher said they are always accepting donations.
Menstrual products are often something that is forgotten about when people donate to shelters, according to Thrasher.
“You’re thinking about feeding people, sleeping them, clothing them — the basic necessities — not realizing that this is a basic necessity as well,” she said.

Government funding

  • The federal government gives out approximately $7 million dollars per year through the Homelessness Partnering Strategy
  • 65 per cent of the funding must go towards stable housing (transitional housing programs) and the remaining 35 per cent is for other services, like alcohol prevention programs, anti-violence programs, etc.
  • Emergency shelter services are not included in this division of funding
  • The main provincial stream of money is per diem funding, which gives the shelters $44 per person, per day. This pays for food, shelter, clothing, staffing, and more
  • There are other smaller grants and block funding that shelters apply for and are approved through the city
  • Shepherds of Good Hope has both emergency and specialized shelter programs and gets funding indirectly from the city
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