November 26, 2019
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What homeless shelters really need

Aside from cold hard cash, nonprofits that serve homeless populations are in great need of the small things many take for granted: new socks and underwear.

As temperatures outside fall, homeless shelters are in need of gently used coats, hats, gloves, and hand warmers. But all year long, they also need new socks and underwear and disposable diapers. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

There are roughly half a million people experiencing homelessness in the U.S. As temperatures begin to fall, some of the nation’s most vulnerable residents look to shelters and nonprofits for assistance.

We researched several homeless shelter websites and asked nonprofit leaders across the country what they need most this winter.

We spoke most recently with Carpenter’s Shelter in Alexandria, Virginia, who told us that their needs include men’s and women’s underwear and long johns, twin blankets and comforters, instant hot chocolate, and powdered creamer. Another special request: earbuds. Communications and Development Associate Aliki Pappas told us that because Carpenter’s residents live in shared spaces, headsets and earbuds (even from the Dollar Store) provide a privacy and comfort that can go a long way.

[ Read more: Nominate a nonprofit for a Renewal Award ]

Many nonprofits have told us to ask first, because not every facility can handle an overflow of donations. But there are some gifts they can always use.

“I can say with a high degree of certainty, cash always works,” said Michael L. Ferrell, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless, which provides housing and direct services to individuals and families experiencing homelessness in Washington, D.C. In fact, nonprofit organizations such as GlobalGiving that support a wide variety of causes advise that cash is the most effective way to give.

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Beyond money, Ferrell said personal personal care items like soap, washcloths, and feminine hygiene products are always needed.

Jessica Salter, Director of Development of Amos House in Providence, Rhode Island, said not to forget about daily clothing essentials. “Often things that many of us take for granted is access to new and clean underwear and socks,” she said. “Two of the least donated things and something that we need every single day and are seasonless.”

Dakota Chisholm, the volunteer coordinator for Sarah’s Circle, recommended checking your local organization’s Amazon Wish List. Sarah’s Circle, a Chicago-based organization that serves women who are homeless or in need of a safe space, is requesting new bras and underwear, plus other non-essential items such as journals and yarn for their daytime center programs.

Another overlooked item that can make a world of difference to a family are diapers. “For families who are experiencing homelessness, they might be receiving food stamps and food stamps can only be used for food,” said Ferrell. “Things like diapers—which are critically needed for infants—they have to figure out how to purchase those.”

Below we rounded up some of the most requested items, plus some donation don’ts. When in doubt, says Salter, talk to your local shelter: “Don’t assume that you know what anyone needs. The very best thing you can do is pick up the phone, and say: ‘I want to help. What do you need?’”

Here are some recommendations for what to give—and what not to give—homeless shelters this winter:

Personal and hygiene items

  • Soap and deodorant
  • Toothbrushes and toothpaste
  • Washcloths and bath towels
  • Feminine hygiene products
  • Shaving cream and disposable razors

Clothing and seasonal items

  • New socks
  • New underwear
  • Gently used or new winter coats, gloves, hats, and scarves
  • Instant hand warmers

Helpful household items

  • Gift cards
  • Disposable diapers
  • Toilet paper and wet wipes
  • Laundry detergent
  • Twin sheets
  • Towels

Do NOT donate

  • Used socks or underwear
  • Used clothing (unless the shelter has the capacity to accept it, so check first)
  • Used mattresses or pillows
  • Used baby items like car seats and cribs
  • Used toys like stuffed animals
  • Already-opened or partially used toiletries

Find your local shelter

For more information on how to take action in your community, read this guide from The National Alliance to End Homelessness.

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