Denver, CO

Stealing tampons not fun for homeless women

David Heitz

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A week or so ago, a reader commented on one of my stories that she would like me to write about women and homelessness.

So, the past several days I have been asking women where I live, in housing for the formerly homeless, what life was like on the streets. I am lucky that a couple of women I knew from the streets now live in my building.

I have PTSD and get triggered when people ask me about life on the streets. Several of the women I talked to did, too, but I did manage to learn a few new things about women and homelessness.

The worst part of homelessness, many women say, is a lack of access to sanitary napkins or tampons. It’s bad enough not being able to find toilet paper. “You always have to carry wet wipes, it’s gross,” commented one formerly homeless woman.

While there are organizations that hand out tampons to homeless women, they’re scarce. Most women I talked to said they steal the tampons.

“I hated having to steal, it was terrible, but I didn’t know what else to do,” said one of the women.

Even longer toilet lines than the homeless men face

The biggest problems men face are the biggest problems women face, too, but in many instances the women have it worse. For example, the worst part of being homeless in Denver is lack of access to a toilet. If you are lucky enough to find a place where homeless can use the toilet, it usually is full.

People will sit in toilet stalls for hours and shoot up drugs. Rushing someone like that along can be dangerous.

So, you stand there. And hold it in. And squirm.

Well, think how bad the women have it. They tend to take longer in the restroom anyway. Imagine dozens of them lined up to use one toilet stall.

It happens all the time when you’re homeless. What’s worse, women often have longer hair that can be difficult to keep clean.

“You have to wash your hair in sinks at 7-Elevens, it’s awful,” one homeless woman told me.

Women treated like pieces of meat

The women fight amongst themselves just like the men do. Often, homeless women are made to feel like property. Some men have the idea that many if not most homeless women are sex workers. They treat homeless women like pieces of meat and make inappropriate comments.

Even myself, as a 50-year-old man (48 at the time), once had a pimp approach me and ask if I wanted to hook. Apparently, there is money to be made. People desperate for money sometimes will do anything. I did not take him up on the offer.

Indeed, societal ills such as prostitution and human trafficking are rampant in Denver and nationwide. Just like men, women looking for a sense of belonging sometimes become involved with people who end up exploiting them.

Many homeless women are cautious of men and steer clear of them. There is a day shelter for women in Denver that also serves the transgender community.

The Gathering Place serves Denver homeless women

The Gathering Place on High Street in Denver is the only organization offering services exclusively to women and their children and transgender people experiencing homelessness.

“The Gathering Place is the kind of place that will restore your hope in people,” said Leslie Foster, former president of the organization from 1990-2019. The quote is prominently displayed on website for The Gathering Place.

Many homeless people are very distrustful of others.

According to the website, in 2018 The Gathering Place hosted more than 50,000 visits and served more than 60,000 meals. They performed 843 medical screenings.

Of course, being a woman sometimes means being a mother. Mothers usually end up with custody of young children when a marriage breaks apart. And women with children do end up homeless on the street.

Striving to keep homeless women and children safe

“We connect families with other resources such as short-term hotel vouchers, cold weather vouchers, housing information, schooling, and community events,” The Gathering Place explains on its website. “The Gathering Place strives to provide a welcoming and comfortable space for families, one that is clean and safe, where kids and parents can connect and engage in a nurturing and fun way.”

Telephones and access to laundry, mail, showers, and a clothing closet all are available. There even is a nap room with six beds available where women can lie down and rest. Other day shelters don’t offer anything like that.

The Gathering Place offers a cleaner, safer alternative to other homeless day shelters, several women told me. Case managers are available to help homeless women with myriad difficulties that may be preventing them from getting back on their feet.

The Gathering Place at one time offered women help with getting their high school GEDs. The organization hopes to resume that program. Meantime, women can learn job placement skills and use computers to search for work while at The Gathering Place.

Childcare services are available for women while utilizing programs at The Gathering Place.

The website quotes a client named Kylee who is grateful for the services she and her nine-month-old receive. "It's so wonderful and important to have folks know Jai and watch him grow, especially since his father isn't around much,” Kylee said. “It's so good for him to have these good male role models."

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I have been in the news business more than 30 years, spending much of my career at some of the best newspapers in the country. Today, I specialize in Denver local news, health reporting, social justice issues, addiction/recovery/mental health news, and topics surrounding homelessness and human trafficking.

Denver, CO
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