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Common rights?

March 12 2014
Why should it be so hard to access washing facilities when you're homeless, asks Nicole O’Connor

So let’s face it, us women take significantly more pride in our appearance than our men. Every day hygiene, cleansing routines, personal grooming; you take it all for granted, don't you? Unless, that is, you’ve ever been homeless. Then you know it’s no simple matter.

And for a woman who's homeless, there’s one thing in particular that you dread – that monthly visitor. The day or night before, when all you want is to curl up with a hot water bottle and a warm duvet, you instead are coping with an unsafe and unstable environment.

Maybe you’re sofa surfing, which for me, is to live in constant fear: where will I be next? How long have I been intruding? Are they upset with me? This sort of stress takes years off your life, and in addition to normal hormonal responses at that time of the month life can change in a very second.

You might be squatting. And though washing facilities might not be freely available when you’re sofa surfing, here it can be tougher. It’s rare to find more then a sink in a commercial property, and you can be charged with criminal damage if you have the savvy to install a basic shower. This leaves these women in a vulnerable and dirty environment. Most often the buildings are unsafe and uninhabitable. A hot bath is out of the question; a bucket of cold water in a large, unheated open space is the level of the comfort you might expect from a squat.

You might be lucky enough to get to a day centre shower before the hot water has run out or the washing machines have been booked up. Then again, you might not. I have queued for more then three hours to wash and dry my clothes before getting into a cold shower, using donated hotel soaps to try and scrub the infinite layers of dirt I can see, as well as the grime that's just imagined, and impossible to remove.

When that monthly period starts you could even be on the street. I have been caught out a few times – realisation comes with that familiar warm “oops”. Now options are more limited than ever. Public toilet or shop toilet? Will I be able to wash my underwear? Do I have a spare clean pair? Have I got tampons or will I have to use toilet roll? Do I smell?

When I was homeless I stayed awake at night and slept through the days due to my addictions. I consistently missed the day centres’ opening hours, and often had to wash and clean my clothes in public toilets. I had sores all over my lower body from uncomfortable, ill-fitting clothing and lack of accessible bathing facilities. My feet are still suffering the effects of my many years on the street: bad shoes, trench foot and shape deformities from lack of access to clean water and fresh air. I also developed toxic shock syndrome after using a tampon and forgetting about it for eight days, and was hospitalised for three days. Had I had the chance to shower or wash once a day, I might just have had the presence of mind to remove the item that was slowly poisoning me. When you’re homeless being physically clean won’t solve your problems. But it’s a start. And it’s essential to being accepted and integrated by the rest of society. The homeless population is growing faster than any other in the UK.

So why aren’t we doing more to help them access the most basic things in life? The things everyone else takes for granted.

Nicole O'Connor is a pseudonym

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