This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.
I met Kristina* on a cold January day in East Berlin while she was trying to bum a cigarette from passersby. She's been on the streets since she was 11 – that's her guess. She's one of an estimated 2,500 women who sleep rough in the German capital. Despite Berlin shelters now offering free sanitary products, homeless women are often still forced to free bleed while on their period. This can be because the lack of private spaces to change poses a risk of infection they'd rather avoid, or simply the shame of having to ask.
"It's shit. But if you have nothing else, you can DIY your own pad," Kristina said, pulling out a pack of tissues. "I was always too proud to ask for help, but now I give the tissues to girls on the sly when I see red spots on their crotch."
Psychologist Lisanne Hamschmidt provides support to homeless women in Berlin. She said passersby will often stare if they see visible traces of blood on menstruating women. This can make homeless women feel "rejected, but also unsafe because they can no longer move without being noticed", she explained.
Adding to this, homeless women have often experienced domestic or sexual violence, which can make it difficult for them to get the right medical care. "They might not want the gynaecologist to use instruments, they might not even want to take their clothes off and be examined," Hamschmidt said. She's also seen doctors be skeptical when a homeless women presents with endometriosis symptoms such as severe period pain. To better understand the challenges of menstruating with no fixed address, I spoke to three women who do it every month.
Dagmar*, homeless for four years. Didn’t want to say her age.
My first two years on the street were hell. Then, you learn the addresses you need to know and people start helping each other. But as a woman, you never feel safe. It only takes running into the wrong kind of guys one time, those who know you are alone. You can’t think about it too much, you just have to be ready to react. I've often tried to go to sleep at noon in the park and some kids will chat me up even if they know I need to rest. You're there, so people think they can use you.
I don’t squat to pee or change my tampon in broad daylight – I don't want everyone to see me that way. Sometimes I have to take the metro a few stops to find a free public toilet. We need many more portaloos. Everyone needs a space for themselves, not just during their period. You can get visited by a gynaecologist [through free public programs], but then what do you do when you’re in pain on the street? The doctor can give you pills, but then you’re on your own. And being sick or in pain out there, always surrounded and looked at by people, is horrendous.
Jennifer, 49, works as a cleaner, but has no fixed address.
From Monday to Saturday it's fine, everything is open and people are out. But on Sundays I have a real problem because the streets are empty, especially in the morning. Imagine you see six men coming your way – they could be drunk teenagers or criminals and you’re a homeless woman carrying a few bags. When they see you, they think: this woman is helpless. No one will protect her.
I can get pads at the shelters – I'm happy about that. But you need privacy, a space to take out the old pad, put the new one on and get your underwear and jeans back up. Once, I was in Görlitzer Park [in East Berlin] and I saw a man jerking off next to children playing. If that kind of man sees you with your pants down, what do you do? If someone rapes you, how do you explain why your pants were down? You have to be careful all the time. I usually look for restaurants or hotels where they know me and ask if I can go to the bathroom. Then, I always leave everything super clean.
Ann-Marie, 31, homeless for a year and a half with her dog Emma. She has schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder.
I change my tampons when I have to change them, no matter where I am. Sometimes I have to do it in the park, although of course not in the middle of the grass. It is something completely natural that I need to do, it’s a human need. If people look at me and say, “Ugh, that’s disgusting, what is she doing?” I don't care. Fuck those people.
I'm young and I have a dog with me. But if you are physically weak, life on the streets is terrible and extremely psychologically demanding. It's not just that you don't have a bed, you have no place to go. What do you want when you are in pain? A bit of peace and quiet! But you never get that, not even in the shelters. There are always people around, it’s always loud. Many shelters now offer free hygiene products like tampons and sanitary towels. But if you don’t know that, you have to improvise or be OK with free bleeding and having stains on you.