Mamas and Diapers
It looked like a pantry. It was the size of a double closet, with lots of shelves, kept locked day and night. The key to it was held by the director of this emergency shelter for women and their children, a very temporary home for families who had been referred to us by the umbrella task force on homelessness, or through local churches or social workers. It was not a domestic violence safe space: nonetheless the former youth hostel had no identifying signage, nothing to indicate who was living there, or indeed if anyone was living there at all on a street with a number of law offices and other businesses.
The residents arrived often with only what they could fit in large plastic garbage bags, or loose, crammed in the trunks of their aging cars. They came to us with children of all ages; in fact we were the only shelter in the entire metro area that allowed more than four minors in a family unit and older boys. We provided them with the basics: a cold breakfast, a volunteer provided dinner; bedding, towels, toiletries.
Inside the closet that was not a pantry were other essentials: fever and pain reduction over the counter pills, cough syrup, bandages, and most precious—sanitary supplies and a small inventory of diapers. The day shelters and specialized child care center for homeless infants and small children where our homeless clients spent part of the time provided diapers on site, but not for the many hours the children were offsite: not at night or early in the morning, or on the weekends.
We did what we could for our guests while they were enrolled in our program. As they transitioned out, often gradually, from group shelter to freestanding subsidized( in fact essentially free rent) apartments and houses and then independence, it became more and more their responsibility to resume providing for their children , including diapers.
While the area pantries, including one we operated, could help with canned and other nonperishable foodstuffs, it was hit and miss if a family asked for nonfood items. Food drives rarely include a call for paper goods or packages of diapers, absolute necessities for an extended period for many of our mothers (and other caregivers). The cost of providing disposable diapers for a newborn ( most parents in these situations do not have access to washers and dryers on a daily basis—in fact coin laundries often ban them for health reasons, as do childcare centers) is estimated at up to $100 a month for one baby, or eight to ten a day.
Emergency pantries that do have a limited supply of diapers find themselves able only to give a mother in need four to six diapers at a time.
For financially strapped parents, this expense can take up a large chunk of the monthly fixed income they receive, either in low wages or from the small cash grants awarded them through the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) safety net program. And while formula purchases can be paid for with food stamps or WIC, diapers and other essential nonfood products cannot.
The risks to babies, toddlers and their Mamas (or other caregivers) are great. Researchers have found that in addition to causing infection and disease, the lack of an adequate supply of diapers can lead to maternal depression and violence: shame, frustration, a pressure to rush toilet training.
While glossy Mother’s Day ads urge us to honor and reward Mamas with flowers, candy and bracelet charms, for many mothers a reliable supply or diapers would have a lasting impact on their self-worth and dignity and the care of their babies.
In the short run, there is a movement to establish diaper banks. In the longer run, hopefully not too much longer, more realistic cash assistance to low income families is in order, allowing them to cover not just food basics but other basics as well.
And then there is the matter of fair wages.