December 18, 2018

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

For the second year in a row, the number of individuals experiencing homelessness increased, although modestly, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual assessment of homelessness in America, which was released this week. On a single night in January 2018, there were roughly 553,000 people experiencing homelessness in the U.S., a 0.3 percent increase from 2017. About two-thirds (65 percent) were staying in emergency shelters, transitional housing programs, or safe havens.

[ Read more: Know a nonprofit that could use some cash? Nominate them for a Renewal Award ]

This past year, we have reported on several local initiatives—from Boston to the Bay Area—aimed at reducing rates of homelessness, and we will continue to seek out stories from local problem-solvers who are committed to ending homelessness.

As the weather begins to cool, we decided to share some of the more urgent needs from organizations that address homelessness in their communities. We researched several homeless shelter websites and asked local nonprofit leaders, what does your organization need most this winter?

“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.

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
  • Used 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.

The Renewal Project

The Renewal Project is Allstate’s platform to support local problem solvers who are strengthening their neighborhoods block by block.