7 Things Homeless Shelters Need Most in Winter

In winter, being homeless can be deadly, whether you’re a temporary fire evacuee or a person experiencing chronic homelessness. Shelters are often working overtime during the holidays to provide people with their basic needs – and humanizing care, like warm meals and friendly faces at a time that can be very lonely.

If you’re thinking of donating to a local shelter or homeless services organization, it helps them — and you — to donate efficiently. Many organizations maintain lists of their current needs that you can use for guidance so they don’t end up with in-kind donations they can’t use. I’ve also rounded up some common requested items to give you a head start.

1. Cash

The number one thing to give to charity, as a general rule, is cash. That’s because a shelter can negotiate great bulk discounts on necessary items. Even a small cash donation can go a long way!

You can also offer gift cards, which people can use to buy their own supplies and entertainment — a need for everyone, but especially those having a rough time who just want to read a book or listen to some music. Prepaid credit cards are an option, along with store-specific cards, transit passes and similar resources.

2. Toiletries and Hygiene Supplies

Staying clean is tough when you have limited access to sanitation. Whether you’re donating toiletry packs or supplies, they may be greatly appreciated. Some ideas include toothbrushes and toothpaste; soap; shampoo and conditioner; mouthwash; razors and shaving cream; moisturizer and chapstick — vital for cold and wet weather; deodorant; tissues; toilet paper; and combs and brushes. Consider hypoallergenic options for those who may be sensitive to dyes, perfumes and other ingredients.

In addition, menstrual care products of all kinds can be extremely valuable — and they’re often in short supply. People experiencing homelessness are sometimes forced to use products longer than is safe, or to use toilet paper because they can’t access pads or tampons. That’s dehumanizing and unhealthy.

Diapers are also a necessity, in a range of sizes from infant on up, along with baby wipes and other baby care products like diaper cream.

Some shelters also appreciate donations of new, unused makeup for their clients. Women in particular face high appearance standards when applying for jobs, and having makeup can help clients increase their chances of getting and staying hired.

In addition, some people just enjoy wearing makeup and might appreciate the opportunity for escapism! Consider giving foundation and other products for a range of skin tones, increasing the chances that clients will find products suitable to their needs.

3. Socks, Undies, and Bras

These are all things no one wants used — and, in some cases, used donations can’t even be accepted! Socks are an extremely common request, especially warm, well-made socks that wick moisture away to keep feet dry. Mixes of basic bras and underwear can also be appreciated, and larger sizes are often in especially high demand; if you want to donate undergarments, consider checking in with the shelter to see if there are any size shortages they need help with.

4. Backpacks and Storage Carts

People on the go need a safe place to keep their things. A well-built backpack or duffel bag with weatherproofing can help unhoused folks retain their belongings and keep them dry. And while people stereotypically associate grocery carts with the homeless, some are shifting to rolling suitcases or ”granny carts” because they take up less space and are easier to maneuver. Ask ahead about any of these items, as the shelter may already have a supply — or a policy against them.

5. Plus-Size Clothes

Many shelters are inundated in clothing donations, thanks to closet clear-outs. But they may have a shortage of plus sizes. It’s worth checking in to see if your local shelter would appreciate some warm, well-made clothes for larger clients — especially professional clothes for those who are applying for jobs or already working for companies with dress code requirements.

6. Shelter Supplies

Shelters have varying needs, but many appreciate sheets, towels, sleeping mats, sleeping bags, blankets, pots, pans and other housewares. Resealable plastic bags are another common ask, as shelters use them to pack supplies and snacks for clients. Always check in first, as a shelter may be all set with its supplies, or may have a need not listed here!

7. Your Time

Volunteers can help shelters sort supplies, get guests settled in, solicit donations and perform other tasks. Many shelters request a commitment of at least a few hours a month and offer a volunteer training. Once you’ve had your orientation, you can volunteer year-round at the shelter or on a street team.

Be aware that many shelters get a lot of volunteer requests around the holidays, so they may be overwhelmed and not able to respond immediately. Don’t be surprised if they ask you some probing questions to see if you’re interested in one-time opportunities or a longer commitment.

Consider signing on to become a regular volunteer; when the dust of the holidays settles, there will still be people in need.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

76 comments

Daniel N
Daniel N5 days ago

Thanks for posting

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Tania N
Tania N10 days ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Tania N
Tania N10 days ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Glennis W
Glennis Whitney15 days ago

Thank you for caring and sharing

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Glennis W
Glennis Whitney15 days ago

Great info Thank you for caring and sharing

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Glennis W
Glennis Whitney15 days ago

Interesting Thank you for caring and sharing

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Glennis W
Glennis Whitney15 days ago

Thank you for caring and sharing

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Paula A
Paula A16 days ago

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Caitlin L
Caitlin L16 days ago

Thank you

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Sophie A
Sophie Aabout a month ago

thank you

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