Thoughtful Donations: What Homeless Shelters Need Most in the Winter

Homelessness remains a problem in the United States.

More than a half million Americans experienced homelessness last year, and some 1.5 million people sought some sort of emergency shelter or housing relief over that same period, says the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

And while the holidays are a warm, loving time for so many people, they are especially hard on people who lack stable, affordable housing for both emotional and physical reasons. It’s draining to have to face the coming cold when you would much rather be around a dinner table with loved ones.

Compassion and the spirit of giving during this time can provide a real lift for anyone seeking emergency shelter or experiencing homelessness.

If you would like to help, here are the things shelters say they need the most this time of year.

Socks, Warm Clothes and Blankets

Think about the basics of keeping warm when choosing what to donate. Warm wearables are especially crucial, says Washington, D.C.-based organization Thrive DC, which provides direct services to local homeless residents. At the beginning of each winter, Thrive DC hosts a coat drive to get warm coats to the people who need them most. This year’s coat drive would be an excellent way to help out if you live in or near the nation’s capital.

Further, Catholic Charities of Saint Paul and Minneapolis stresses that men’s XL–4XL are the most in-demand coat sizes. They also suggest donating waterproof gloves and mittens, winter boots, long underwear and thermal socks.

In fact, socks of any kind are welcome. Most homeless people struggle to find a clean pair of socks every day.

toiletries - homeless shelters

Personal Care Items

Next, think about the things you couldn’t do without for even a day or two: Toiletries, personal hygiene products, etc. It’s the same for someone experiencing homelessness. “Almost all shelters request personal care items, from toothpaste to feminine care products to soap,” Rachelle Gordon at Recycle Nations writes.

The team at Atlanta Mission, which provides direct services to its city’s homeless residents, has a few specific recommendations:

  • Liquid soap
  • Reading glasses
  • Underwear
  • Water-based lotion
  • Aerosol deodorant
  • Baby wipes
  • Diapers size 4T and up

Sheets, Towels and Cookware

Consider, too, all the things a shelter itself needs to provide services to its overnight guests. This includes sheets for twin beds, towels and easy-to-hand-out breakfast snacks (e.g. cereal bars), says the team at YWCA Harrisburg in Pennsylvania, which is an excellent local resource for women who need a safe place to sleep during the winter months.

Have a look at that organization’s Amazon Wishlist for further ideas about what would be welcome donations — whether there or at a local shelter near you.


For women who have had to leave a situation quickly, bras are often an afterthought. “When women are running for their lives, they will take time to grab the child’s favorite teddy bear or perhaps grab copies of the birth certificates or other important documents, but they often leave with nothing but the clothes on their back,” Cindy Southworth of the National Network To End Domestic Violence tells Jezebel.

When the little money you have is going toward food or shelter or safety, she says, spending $15 on a bra can seem unthinkable. So, many shelters will gladly welcome donated bras.

One national resource leading this drive is The Bra Recyclers, an organization that has helped donate more than one million bras to women and girls in need.

cell-phone - homeless shelters

Leisure and Entertainment

Entertainment becomes an unaffordable luxury for many people experiencing homelessness. Still, everyone deserves an opportunity to read a great book, listen to their favorite songs or go on a Netflix binge.

This is a good time to underscore the problem of youth homelessness, which affects thousands of children and teens who, for a variety of reasons, don’t have the ability to go home.

“Up to 40% of homeless youth self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning,” says the team at Youth Care, an organization based in Seattle. “Most of those were kicked out simply for being who they are.

“Then, there are those who have been thrown onto the street by Life. Someone dies, and a family begins to implode. A house burns down, or there’s a natural disaster, and families are scattered. Families walking a tightrope from paycheck to paycheck are knocked off it by job loss or crushing medical bills, and you get what we’re encountering more and more these days: a young man or woman, even a child, who tells us, ‘My parents tell me they just can’t afford to keep me anymore.’”

The Youth Care team has a thoughtful list of donatable items that could really help a child (or an adult) get through a difficult period. This list includes:

  • Gift cards to large retailers
  • Prepaid cell phones with talk minutes already loaded
  • Headphones
  • MP3 players
  • Art supplies
  • Journals
  • Cinema tickets and gift cards

Respect and Compassion

“One of the easiest ways to help is to simply acknowledge that homeless men and women exist,” writes Oregonian reporter Anna Griffin, who for a 2015 story spoke to several local homeless residents of Portland about what they personally need from their neighbors.

“A lot of those people don’t want to be where they are, and they have a heart, they’re human, they cry, too,” one source told her. “Next time you see them, don’t just walk around them and stick your nose up. They are feeling bad enough. They don’t need that. Say hello. Make them feel like a human being.”

If You Are Feeling Especially Generous…

Amy Allen Clark, who blogs at, has an incredible guide that shows readers where and how to buy needed donations in bulk so they can bundle them into very nice care packages for anyone experiencing homelessness. There is even a handy checklist at the bottom of her post. Clark’s guide is awesome and worthy of a bookmark.

And if you’d like more tips for how you can brighten someone’s holiday season through charitable donations or other expressions of goodwill, have a look at some of the other articles in our Paying It Forward series.

Images by: stockbroker/©123RF Stock Photo, siamphotos/©123RF Stock Photo, Kuzma/©123RF Stock Photo