For A Homeless Woman, A Bra Is A Lifeline

In 2016 Jane Holmes was shopping at a Gold Coast mall, when a chance encounter with a 13-year-old girl changed her life forever.

The girl approached Jane and asked if she had any sanitary products.

Jane, a mother of three and a 10-year veteran Crisis Intervention Officer with Victim Support for New Zealand Police, immediately knew something wasn’t right.

“My mother’s instinct was screaming at me,” Jane said. “Her body language and emotions spoke volumes."

Jane bought the girl sanitary products and, still concerned for her welfare, asked if she could buy her lunch too.

Over the course of lunch, the girl admitted to Jane that she had run away from home to escape sexual abuse from her stepfather.

She was living ‘on the streets’.

The girl’s situation is disturbing and is one echoed by statistics.

A 2016-2017 government report found that the number one reason women and children leave their homes is due to abuse and domestic violence.

(Image: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare)

These statistics don’t even take into account violence that goes unreported or those people not able to access services.

At the time Jane met the girl at the mall, she was not accessing services and the crimes against her had not been reported to authorities.

After having lunch, and building up trust, Jane asked the girl to show her where she was living.

She was ‘sleeping rough’ with two older women, one of whom Jane describes as a "larger than life character" going by the name of ‘Lily’.

The two older women were not wearing bras.

This might sound like nothing worth noting -- people might actually laugh or feel awkward reading about it.

But the reality of being bra-less and homeless -- a combination of weight, weak skin tissue and unsanitary living conditions -- amounts to a great deal of silent suffering.

“She actually lifted her t-shirt and breasts up and had the most horrific weeping chaffing wounds,” Jane said.

Jane was shocked.

“I just could not imagine women or girls not having a bra or sanitary products,” she said.

Something as simple as a bra makes a dramatic difference in the health and dignity of a homeless woman. (Image: Supplied)

Eventually Jane saw the young girl taken into care by the Department of Health and Safety, but she could not forget her "heartbreaking" situation or the "horrendous" state of health of her companions.

While there are many obvious and overt challenges homeless people may be facing, especially those sleeping rough -- securing shelter, warmth, food, safety, dealing with mental and physical health issues, trauma, abuse, addiction, accessing support services -- most of us never consider how not having the simple everyday things we take for granted  will impact a person's health and dignity.  For a woman, a bra is a prime example.

The encounter with the 13-year-old girl and her rough-sleeping companions left such an impression on Jane, she decided to dedicate her life to providing disenfranchised women and girls with sanitary items, bras and other personal goods. But she is quick to stress that while giving out products is obviously important, it isn't the only priority.

You don’t just hand a homeless woman a bra and pad and suddenly all her problems go away.

“Some of the women we see have not sat and had a conversation with someone in years, or not had a haircut in ten years… for us what is most important is the connection and helping women get their dignity back,” she said.

A homeless woman packs up her belongings in Martin Place on August 11, 2017. (Image: PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images)

Jane says the degree of misconception about women and homelessness is ‘criminal’.

Even the term ‘homeless’ is confusing.

Homeless does not mean ‘on the streets’ -- only about seven percent of homeless people are actually ‘rough sleepers’.

Homeless is a term that encompasses a wide range of living situations, which can include living in a shelter, living in a car and couch surfing.

(Image: AAP Medianet for Launch Housing)

At the core of it, homelessness is described by the Australian Bureau of Statistics as a person who is living ‘in a dwelling that is inadequate’. 

Di Groweg, a fellow volunteer and Jane’s ‘wingwoman’ wants people to know the stereotype of a 'drug-addicted rough sleeper' is far from the reality of the women she helps.

These days there are so many more working poor.  That may sound like a strange thing to say; rents are high, women may be left widowed without enough income to keep up mortgage or rent payments -- they may have lost their jobs and are at an age where it’s hard to find work. And there are women who are in domestic violence situations," she said.

Misconceptions surround homelessness women and girls. (Image: Supplied)

Last year, Jane met Kat, a homeless woman in need of a bra and personal products. Now, Kat has just bought her first home.

When they met, Kat was "barefoot, braless and living in her car" with her dog Brioche.

With the help of volunteers, Kat was fitted with a bra and given a care package.

“That was the most amazing thing that ever happened to me and that was the start of my journey,” Kat said.

After a number of one-on-one meetings, and with the encouragement and support of Jane and volunteers, Kat managed to secure a job as a baker with Coles.

Kat (L) said she will never be homeless again, while Jane (R) said that her pride in Kat is ‘"immeasurable". (Image: Supplied)

Kat is proof of what can be achieved when all women and girls have access to the basic dignities of life, like bras and sanitary products. Equally, or perhaps even more important, is the empathy and relationships they can build through  compassionate interactions with those willing to help and listen.

Jane Holmes is the founder of Support The Girls Australia, a charity driven by the simple goal of ‘Empowering women with Dignity and Respect one bra at a time’.

The post first appeared on August 10, 2018.