The hidden challenges of being a woman and homeless


Leta Lohrmeyer

A pile of pads sitting in the overflow room at the Siena Francis House, shows how necessary access to feminine hygiene products are for homeless women.
A pile of pads sitting in the overflow room at the Siena Francis House, shows how necessary access to feminine hygiene products are for homeless women. Photo by Leta Lohymeyer/the Gateway

“I’m not going anywhere in this cold,” a woman could be overheard as she bundled herself up with canvas coat and a hot pink stocking cap. “It’s just too cold out there.”

This woman, along with dozens of others, are the people who crowd inside the Siena Francis House on Wednesday, as outside fluffy snowflakes are falling down. These are women who are without a stable living situation.

The Siena Francis House in Omaha provides them with a place to sleep, three meals a day, warm clothes, as well as resources to provide medical services and therapy.

“We get a lot of women that just come off the streets that have nothing,” said Brenda DeBolt, a staff member working at the shelter for more than four years. “They’ve lost everything, either domestic violence, or they just happen to have nowhere to go. So, we’re like the front door service. When they come in here, we sit and talk with them, find out what their needs are.”

Most homeless women are survivors of domestic and sexual violence. It is reported that 63% of homeless women are homeless due to fleeing domestic violence, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Tim Sully, the development director at Siena Francis House, said that there’s a large correlation between the women that come to the shelter and domestic violence.

Sully also explained that when people come to the shelter, they need to complete a form about what their variables of homelessness are. One of those variables is domestic violence, but it is found that it is underreported. Sully believes that more than 90% of homeless women at Siena Francis House have experienced domestic violence.

Another major factor that leads people to become homeless is mental illness. Sully shared a story of one of these women.

She was dealing with prior mental illness and then was recently diagnosed with cancer that would make her unable to have children. This furthered her depression and “sent her over the edge.” She lost her job and couldn’t find another one, which led to her losing her apartment. Without a safety net of friends or family in Omaha, this woman ended up homeless downtown, eating out of dumpsters.

“She was really at her lowest when she got here,” Sully said. “I see her today when I’m around, and she’s doing much better. She’s been seeing some therapists and psychiatrists.”

While this particular woman is unable to have children, others may face a different challenge—like one woman who sat on the sidewalk by the intersection of 72nd and Dodge streets with a cardboard sign that read, “Please help. I’m homeless and pregnant.”

Sully explained that the Siena Francis House and other shelters in Omaha connect pregnant homeless women to the correct resources, for example the Homeless Prenatal Program. These services help these women get prenatal care, doctor appointments and medication. However, the Siena Francis House is an adult-only shelter.

Another issue that is unique to homeless women is finding feminine hygiene products like pads and tampons, because even if you’re without a home, you won’t go without your period. Those products are costly, even if a woman went to get a tampon from a bathroom dispenser, she would be out 25 cents, and the tampon would only be able to last for eight hours.

At the Siena Francis House, donations of feminine hygiene products are always on demand. DeBolt said that on the shelter’s Facebook page they post what products and items are needed every Wednesday.

People often take even the most basic things for granted. For DeBolt, she said that you don’t think about having a place to sleep or being able to take a shower, until you don’t have it anymore.

These physical needs are missing from their lives, at the same time their emotional needs are neglected too. People have been conditioned to walk past and avert their gaze from the homeless on the streets, making them invisible.

DeBolt said that even when she’s not at work or in a different city she will seek out the homeless, just to give them human interaction and conversation.

“There’s so much stigma with being homeless,” DeBolt said. “These are smart people that are facing challenges. That’s why I always go out to talk to them. Please think of the homeless, especially during this holiday season.”