When I was in my freshman year of college, I stumbled across a video put out by Bustle that helped me to see homelessness through a feminist perspective—although, 5 years ago I probably would not have worded it that way. The video featured humans talking about their experiences of having a period while also experiencing homelessness. Nineteen-year-old me watched this and felt a call to action. It was time to embody my soul purpose as a social justice warrior on the frontlines! Or so I thought…
In 2016, I started a fundraiser and raised around $400, as well as awareness surrounding this particular issue. With that money, and help from my high school friend Kristen, we bought a bunch of feminine care products to fill brown paper bags. Each bag consisted of mostly tampons, some pads, packets of Advil, and soaps/ lotions. Then we proceeded to walk around the neighborhoods that my dad and I had deemed as “hot spots” at the time – my family lived in Manhattan, NY then. Some of the places we walked around to pass out the goodie bags included St Marks Place, Tompkins Square Park, Washington Square Park, Midtown near Grand Central Station, and so on. Lastly, we donated excess supplies to a shelter on the lower east side.
This was a well-intentioned effort at the time, but ultimately, I was failing to investigate deeper. I personally related to the issue of having unmanageable periods, and I stopped there; I was looking through a privileged lens because it was easy and comfortable. Looking back, my mission was more about me than it was about women experiencing homelessness. Now, I live in a part of Harrisonburg where many of the neighbors I encounter on a regular basis are people experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity in some capacity, and it has really forced me to begin grappling with related issues again, but this time to greater depths.
Growing up in and around New York, I was always taught to avoid people pan handling on the street.
“Don’t stare” ”Don’t look” ”Just keep walking”
I guess it’s easier to dehumanize than to feel guilty, overwhelmed, afraid, etc…
There were several instances when I was alone with my dog, passing out the aforementioned goodie bags, where I would be harassed, cursed at, and felt my safety threatened. Of course, there were also people who were truly appreciative and generally excited to receive my caring energy, but it felt far and few between. Altogether, I wanted to harden and move on.
I felt helpless. But what I wasn’t really seeing is that so did they, and tampons weren’t going to make their problems go away. I was addressing a mere symptom of a greater systematic disease.
“This is not just a poor issue, this is not just about getting products to those who need them, which is obviously a priority. This is really about bringing dignity to women,”Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, New York City Council Member
The New York City Council Member that was featured in the Bustle video is Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, the first woman and first person of color on the City’s Committee on Finance. She points out that there are different levels of homelessness, from sleeping on the streets to having access to a shelter or room. Some women explained that they avoid shelters because homeless shelters often attract a higher concentration of people who drink or use drug; for women, it’s not uncommon that the shelters feel more dangerous and violent than the streets… Women facing housing insecurity are more vulnerable to violence no matter where they go.
Moreover, women are typically deemed the caretaker in our society. As a result they are burdened with greater responsibility and related challenges. If you’ve ever wondered why you see more men who are apparently without a secure living situation, it’s partially because they are less likely to have the legal/ financial responsibility of raising a family. Men may go to shelters or find room shares, while women are limited by what they are expected to provide for their children. And as I have now witnessed, the consequence of failing to meet societal and legal expectations results in having your family– your support, your whole life– ripped away from you.
Julissa Ferrera-Copeland explains that we need to make legislative rather than minor policy changes here and there, because the ‘law of the land’ takes over. In essence I think what she is trying to say is that the law is a powerful force that enacts social change. And I agree with her, in part. I realize now that one of the most powerful things I can do with my privileged status is to educate myself and fight for the rights of people who don’t have a voice that is listened to.
But along with that, I believe, comes the equally important responsibility of listening.
It’s not just about voting for what I think will benefit the voiceless, its about truly giving a voice to the voiceless. As Kailah from the Bustle video pointed out, everyone has their story, and everyone has reason for doing the things they do. I think it’s important to try to understand people living in these positionalities that are radically different from my own because that is how we develop the empathy necessary to strengthen the community as whole. We come from a very individualistic society, but whether we like to believe it or not, we are all connected. While laws are a powerful and effective way to bring about social change, I think that small individual changes on a large scale may be equally important.
If you are looking for a dose of “homework” on community and how to ‘show up,’ please check out this podcast linked below. It does not specifically touch on homelessness, but it is a jumping off point for the valuable individual work that is crucial to the paradigm shift we desperately need to adeuquately address the issues discussed above.