Donate Don’tate: A Homeless Shelter Primer

November 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

During this time of year people always become so damn charitable. It could be that they’re making way for new and fabulous items that they will be receiving from their friends and families in shiny wrapping paper and ribbons or that they will have to purchase themselves to make it look as if they are “keeping up with the Joneses” when the in-laws come into town. Either way, a lot of stuff ends up getting bagged up and sent off to thrift stores or homeless shelters.

First, as an employee that spends countless hours grueling over sorting and processing donations through the night here at my facility, I would like to thank you for your donations. Without these items we would be hard up to help out the people we are trying to support. However, sometimes things should just be taken to the thift store. I have decided to write out a helpful little guide to assist you.

Also, please remember that most shelters are open year round. (with the exception of winter warming centers) Donations are actually sometimes needed more in May than in December. Plan your tax deducible donations sensibly. Your CPA will appreciate it and so will we!




I know you loved your great aunt Elsie very much and it broke your heart when you had to box up her property at the retirement community she lived before she passed away. Your favorite memories of her were when she stood up in church and testified and the sun rays glinted through the windows and shone off of the sequins on those fabulous sweaters she wore every Sunday morning without fail. Cherish those memories. Maybe hold onto a couple of those sweaters and sniff them every once in a while to remember her scent, but for God’s sake, do not donate them to a homeless shelter. If you wore it to your nephew’s christening and you’re donating it because you just can’t think of another occasion when you’ll wear it, I will guarantee you it’s not appropriate for donation. DRY CLEAN ONLY. Seriously? I know why you’re getting rid of it. You didn’t check the tag when you bought it, or convinced yourself that if it ever got dirty you would absolutely go to the dry cleaner. When have you ever been to the dry cleaner? Honestly? Now you’ve pawned it off on someone else. It’s not a white elephant gift. It’s supposed to be charity. I realize that the first goal is to keep people clothed and warm. However, these people are often going out and looking for jobs and apartments. (At least in my facility.) So, I am adding, don’t donate outrageously out of date clothing like anything with shoulder pads.


Everyday pants of any material (denim, corduroy, canvas, etc) in any size. Often shelters are lacking in the xx-large woman’s sizes. (IE 22 – 28) Pajama pants, t-shirts without alcohol or offensive slogans/language on them. (Even ‘positive language’ can be borderline. Unfortunately a ‘Gay Pride’ shirt can have a lot of negative reactions.) Plain shirts, button-down, etc. Casual, business, etc. Sweaters and sweatshirts. New underwear. (Some shelters accept used underwear, but not all. Underwear is an item we always need in every size, especially in the larger ones.) New or gently used socks. Shoes that are in good condition; not just regular sneakers, hiking shoes or whatnot, but nicer shoes as well. New and gently used bras.



The great thing about men’s clothing, is for the most part, it is timeless. . . except for Hawaiian shirts and anything from about 1984 to 1996. It’s OK, though. The hipsters want those things anyway, so go ahead and free box that stuff and they will flock to it like a kitten to a saucer. Especially if you throw a brown button down cardigan on top to lure them in. Let’s just go over the obvious of what not to put into the donation bag. Don’t put polyester suits. The ones from the 70s with the big collars. Let’s just make this really easy on me and I am going to say don’t put out of date stuff. Yes, I know 80s is “back in vogue.” No, no, no – it really doesn’t mean it’s OK to bestow your Van Halen denim jacket on some poor unsuspecting soul. . . actually, you could send it to me. Also, offensive or promotional t-shirts. I know you don’t like it. I know you were given it at a bar or a street fair and it’s been hanging out in your drawer forever. Use it as a shop rag. Give it to the thrift store. Paint the house while wearing it. You know what’s not cool to do? Give a dude in recovery a t-shirt with a giant beer slogan on it.


Men’s clothing is really easy. Pants. You all wear them. For the most part, you all want to be not wearing them from what I understand. Well, give them up and give them to the shelter. Jeans, slacks. Even your great grandfather Torvold’s high rider’s can find a home at the shelter. Even though his trousers were pulled up around his nipples, I am sure they can rest comfortably around some guy’s normal waistline. T-shirts and long-sleeved shirts. Button-down shirts, both of the casual style and job interview quality. Suit blazers if they aren’t obviously dated. You are welcome to donate neckties, but please be aware that these often are slow to be handed out to clients in the shelter environment, so personally I would advise against bringing in the bag of 50 ties you have from your grandfather’s recent death. I would choose a few that are neutral, would most likely go with many different shirt colors, are of a modern width, and then give the rest to the thrift store. . . or mail them to me as I do a lot of fun craft projects with ties. . .  New and gently used socks. As I said before with the women’s clothing, not all shelters accept used underwear, and it’s just really nice to give new underwear people. Seriously. Both boxers and briefs, though from the little time I’ve worked at a men’s shelter, they were more grateful for anything than picky. Shoes of different calibers from sneakers to running and hiking, dress shoes and the like.


Toiletries are integral to the everyday function of the shelter. Here are some things to think about if you’re thinking about purchasing for a shelter near you. Also, if you happen to be cleaning out that drawer full of hotel shampoos and conditioners from your many amazing vacations, we love those! Put them in a big plastic bag and when you bring in your “appropriate clothing” donation bring those along as well! At my facility the hotel-sized shampoos get handed out to clients for their personal use, but regular sized containers of shampoo/conditioner are considered “House” and are shared amongst all clients, so it’s really nice to have the small ones for clients to have their individual containers.


Mouthwash with alcohol in it

Shaving cream (this seems weird, but at our shelters for instance, we charge for razors and get a ridiculous amount of shaving cream donations. Currently at my facility alone I have over 700 disposable razors and boxes upon boxes of shaving cream. Honestly, it’s not really that much of a necessity as you would like to think. We get the donations anyways and a little goes a LONG way.)

Giant Costco-sized value containers of anything. Sometimes the shelter hands out the products directly to the clients to keep. Clients don’t have the room for, nor do they want to lug around 4 lbs of pomegranate body wash.

Tampons. Weird, I know. They’re great. Most women use them. They’re convenient and all that. Unfortunately a great deal of shelters reside in older buildings with sub-par plumbing. My facility, while they can’t outright “forbid” them, doesn’t provide them for clients because they do exactly what they were made to do. . . which is clog up the pipes. . .


Toothbrush lids or containers
Toothpaste (the little tubes are actually better than the big ones)
Deodorant (unisex scents preferable)
Soap bars
Hand Lotion (light or unscented preferable)
Sanitary Napkins
Talcum powder
Cough drops
Standard first aid supplies (individual antiseptic gel packets, band aids and liquid hand sanitizer are my favorites)
Denture bond
Blood Sugar Monitor Test strips (we get the monitors as donations all the time, but they’re not very much use without the test strips and your donation can help a person manage their diabetes for a month)



California king size sheets. Yes, we need bed linens. Yes, I know you believe that the government just hands people experiencing homelessness welfare checks and food stamps. Unfortunately they still sleep on twin-sized beds, or worse, mats on the floor. So, stop giving us your old ginormous bed sheets. They’re ridiculously huge and I can’t do anything with them

Down Pillows. I love down. I have down pillows myself and a down comforter. Do you know that kind of funky smell they get when they’re not quite dry, though? Yeah. Now imagine that smell for days. It’s gross. Now imagine that smell multiplied by a room full of, say 30 – 50 of them. It’s terrible. Just don’t do it to me.

In fact, since we’re on the pillow issue, let’s just say used pillows at all. There is a reason you’re getting rid of the pillow in the first place. Its gotten flat. The fiber fill has matted down. Detritus has formed inside the casing. There is sweat stain on it. Sleeping on someone else’s used pillow can cause weird pressure points, migraines, etc. etc. However, you can buy a lovely brand new pillow at a store for like $5 and donate that instead.


Coffee (Donate lots of coffee. Not decaf. Not instant. Just some good old fashioned pre-ground coffee)
Flat & Fitted Twin-sized Sheets (if the shelter specifically asks for bed linens)
New pillows
Sleeping bags or tents (depending on the specific needs of the shelter. If they don’t ask for it, I would ask them) 
Food Donations (often shelters will post what kind of non-perishable donations they need. If you want to donate large meals, call their volunteer organizer for details)

While I am sure that this is a greatly incomplete list as all shelters have different needs for their situations, but I hope this is something that can help you make informed and generous decisions in your donations throughout the entire year.

A Note on Children: I haven’t purposefully omitted them from this list. When making child based donations, there are many professional organizations that will ensure that toys and clothing will end up with children and needy families. Putting toys and kid clothes in donation bags sent to homeless shelters not “family oriented” usually means that those items will end up being reprocessed and end up being sent off to a thrift store or even thrown away. My particular shelter is 18+ so we don’t deal with kid items at all. Many local organizations have clothing and toy drives during the holidays and even offer large bins conveniently at super markets and such so you don’t even have to go out of your way to dump your kid’s old crap.


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