Thinking About Donating to a Homeless Shelter? Read This First

We spend a lot of time discussing financial contributions here, but that’s hardly the only way to show your support. There’s a homeless shelter in almost every community, and they’re always in need, particularly during these cold winter months.

With the homeless population in this country hovering around a half-million people (and that’s a conservative estimate), most shelters are overtaxed and underfunded. But before you interpret that as an open invitation to give whatever you can, call and ask what’s needed first because different shelters have different needs, and not every facility can handle an overflow of donations.

The Renewal Project recently surveyed several shelters across the country about what they could use at any given moment. The one gift that’s almost always welcome: cash.

Close behind are basic, everyday necessities, like soap, washcloths, and feminine hygiene products.

“Often, what many of us take for granted is access to new and clean underwear and socks, two of the least-donated things and things that we need every single day and are seasonless,” said Jessica Salter, director of development at Amos House in Providence, Rhode Island.

Another often overlooked item: diapers. “For families who are experiencing homelessness, they might be receiving food stamps, but they can only be used for food,” said Michael L. Ferrell, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless, which provides housing and essential services in Washington, DC. “Things like diapers, which are critically needed for infants, they have to figure out how to purchase those.”

Beyond the aforementioned, talk with the shelter first before arriving with a carload of goods. “Don’t assume that you know what anyone needs,” Salter said. “The very best thing you can do is pick up the phone and say, ‘I want to help. What do you need?’ ”

There are, however, a few things you can cross off your list right now:

It’s also a good idea to find another outlet for your gently-worn clothing. While it’s natural to think that clothing could only help at a shelter, particularly at this time of year, the reality is that most do not have enough staff to sort it or the room to store it.