Ask a social worker or any organization that assists families in homeless and low-income communities, and you will learn that they all experience a similar problem each month. They do not have enough diapers. Diapers are the most requested basic need item, and organizations always run out.
According to the National Diaper Bank, an estimated 1 in 3 families struggles to provide enough diapers to keep a baby or toddler clean, dry, and healthy. Families can spend between $80-$100 per month on diapers for one child, but the cost can go up if there isn’t transportation to big box stores. While the cost of food can be addressed with access to food banks or by tapping into public nutrition programs, little help exists to address diaper needs. To make matters worse, government assistance programs like food stamps and WIC don’t pay for these kinds of essentials for kids. Cloth diapering is also an impractical option for homeless families without a washer. Local laundering services and transitional housing will not allow families to wash soiled diapers in shared washers. Parents have to decide between the cost of getting to work or a month’s supply of diapers. They improvise to make diapers stretch further, changing diapers less often, or attempt to clean and reuse disposable diapers, which are health and safety hazards.
This means 33% of families experience diaper need. The reality is that a lack of an inadequate supply of diapers can have severe mental, emotional, and developmental impacts on parents and children.
Even in areas where diaper banks exist, families tell us that they navigate a maze of bureaucratic agencies with extensive requirements, sometimes daily, for services which can be exhausting. To access diapers, a family must have a means of transportation, figure out where to go and deal with time delays as they are placed on a waitlist. There are two diaper banks and another with limited availability in King County that will help families struggling to afford an adequate supply to keep their kids clean and dry, but none in places like South Seattle, SeaTac, Renton, Federal Way, Kent or Everett where racial and ethnic disparities exist for disproportionately affected communities. With COVID-19, these disparities are exacerbated.
More nonprofits attempting to solve homelessness from a complex systems perspective need to recognize that families must first have their basics met to move beyond immediate needs and break the cycle of poverty.