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.


A Noodley Effigy

September 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

Sometimes when I read the log when I first get on shift at work, I really have to wonder what my co-workers are thinking when they are making their entries. For sake of privacy and, you k now, not getting fired, I can’t actually post actual entries, but I am going to paraphrase what transpired recently.

Earlier this evening, a client had volunteered to cook a “house dinner” for everyone. This is a fairly common thing. It’s nice. Everyone enjoys it. Sometimes it can be a little stressful for one or two people to cook for 60 other women, but usually it runs pretty smoothly. For some reason, this client decides to take the plastic packages of dry pasta and stick them into the oven that at the time, she claims was not turned on, but when my co-worker checked, it was on broil. For sake of argument, we’ll just say the client put them there for safe keeping. Why? I have no idea. There’s lots of counter space. There’s no reason to put packages of pasta inside an oven. You know what’s going to happen. It happened. The pasta comes aflame and smoke fills the building, the fire alarm goes off, the works. Everyone is evacuated. Hunky firemen show up. The noodley-effigy culprit was found.

Life continues at the shelter and the client finishes dinner. My co-workers proceed to write in the log “and house dinner went off without a hitch.

The best part about this story however is the big steaming pile of suck after this where they leave me a happy little pink note taped to a yellow aerosol canister of oven cleaner asking if I can clean the oven out. Now, they asked, but since there are only two ranges and 38 women on this floor, it’s more of a ‘I need to do it’ kind of situation. So, I spent an hour sitting on a chair with elbow length rubber gloves on huffing aerosol lye and scrubbing out baked on dioxin fumes and gunk so that my clients can fry up their Jimmy Dean convenience store sausages in the morning.

The Joy of Mindless Tasks

May 20, 2011 § 1 Comment

I’d do it for free.

Stuffing envelopes, that is. Over the past two nights, I have had the pleasure of a “special project” from my director. These are very often tasks that are best done at night when there is little client interaction so that I can focus on them and let my co-worker work the desk. I enthusiastically accept any and all projects thrown my way.

I’m a brown-noser, I realize.

My thought process is that maybe they will notice all the extra work I am doing and move me into a more skilled position. I think the outcome is that they realize that I don’t have enough to do in my current position and so they’re always ready to laden me with more work.

I have been hand addressing, stamping and filling envelopes and I love it. Doing these kinds of tasks keeps me busy without really having to think ahead or about anything else that is going on in my life. Lately, I have been thinking about a lot, so this comes as a meditative relief to me.

I have often volunteered for organizations doing similar tasks. I even have been compiling an address list of my own to mail out brochures about my mad harp skillz.

I could be a little obsessive-compulsive.

During one of my classes at school this quarter, the instructor brought up an interesting notion. He said that when you study, you should only do it for a few minutes and then go do a mindless task for a bit before returning to study. I have always done this a bit, but I considered it to be a sign of attention deficit disorder. It still could be. He made an suggestion of juggling, which he performed in class – or washing the dishes, which he did not. The theory is that the short-term memory can only retain so much information at once before it caches it away into long-term memory so you need time to process it before piling on more data.

Kind of like a Commodore 64.

Full-Time Job? All Its Cracked Up To Be

May 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Working night shift has been wearing on me for a while. This is not new information. Every evening when I wake up, I am heard to announce; “I don’t want to go to work!” Every morning when I return from work it’s the old broken record of: “I am going to quit my job!” This has been going on for about the last eight month. Approximately the length of time that I have been working this shift.

The weather has been turning lately. While during the wintertime I wasn’t missing out on adventures due to rain, I am now facing 70 degree days where I will be curled up nestled in my blankets during the most gorgeous of weather. Ugh. I should be out bicycling and having adventures when instead, I am cooped up inside both night and day.

This is miserable.

I should be working on harp music and paintings. Focusing on school work and that new business that I wanted to start makinag woman’s bicycle clothing and accessories. Yeah. Those things are never going to happen. I am going to continue to get mediocre grades and blisters because I can’t find the time to do the things that make me happy and content in life.

This is beginning to turn into a rant.

In 2009, I quit my job during the beginning of June to focus on more bicycle-based endeavors. I then played harp and did odd jobs until that winter when I began working at the winter shelter on the weekends. All that next year, I was only working on-call, picking up a shift or two every couple of weeks and supporting myself mainly by harp performance.

So, here I am in 2011. I just got on insurance a month ago. I have a steady job. I am a contributing member of society. I am in a field where I am doing something that I absolutely love. So, why am I not happy?

If I were a hippie, I would say that my spirit is like that of a bird’s, and this convention is pinning my wings and caging my heart. I’m not a hippie. I’m seriously considering letting my flying ribcage rodent free, though.

So the question remains; will I continue working this night shift or will I move into an on-call position so that I can pursue my passions?

Only time will tell.

The Art of Destroying Someone’s Identity

May 11, 2011 § 2 Comments

An infrequent part of my job is called processing property.” It’s a really sterile term, but sometimes you need something like that to keep it from getting too personal. You see, what happens is that if a client leaves shelter and is unable to bring all their belongings with them at that time, we will hold their property for three days. If they are unable to collect it within that time frame, then it’s my job to – you guessed it. Process it.

This involves vinyl gloves.

It’s pretty straight forward. I go through the bagged up property and put anything that can be donated; clothing, shoes, jewelry, etc – into another bag that will go to the Salvation Army thrift store. I throw away any trash or things that can’t be donated. I dump the contents of any pill bottles into a sharps container and I shred any and all paper work.

Shredding is what kills me.

Of course, if it is a birth certificate or social security card, I will put it in the case manager’s inbox so that they can keep it on file in case the client ever turns up for it. This is not an act of compassion, but rather because our agency pays for clients to get their birth certificates and IDs and we want to protect our investments. Everything else? Shredded. Housing applications, personal photos, diary pages. Everything.

You really learn a lot about a person in the few minutes that you’re looking at their papers before they’re thin little strips of fluff in a basket. Were they applying for benefits? Did they have any leads on apartments? Did they have any children or loved ones that wrote them letters from prison?

All gone.

I mean, realistically, what else are you supposed to do? We can’t just have a giant storeroom housing every client’s stuff that ever disappeared on us. We barely have a closet as it is to store the property that ends up there anyway.

Sterile, yes. I try not to let it get to me too much.

First Night Blues

May 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

There’s a new lady at the shelter that I work at. This is a common occurrence. Women filtering in and out of my life as they try to put theirs together.

You can always tell when it’s someone’s first night.  They’re overwhelmed. They can’t sleep. They wonder around all night long looking at everything in the common area. They often cry.

I don’t have an office.

When I was a smoker, I would often go out on breaks and write in the log that I was having a “one on one” with clients. Every once in a while, I will bum a cigarette from a co-worker and light it little by little throughout the night so that I have an excuse to go out and chat with the ladies at the facility.

This was one of those nights. My co-worker and I closed the desk so that she could go out on her smoke break and I could take in the night air. Standing there, staring in the common room window from the patio, we saw our new lady, moving slowly from the book shelf to the magazine rack and the bulletin board.

I opened the door and asked if she would like to join us. Outside, she poured forth the emotion that we expected, wiping the tears from her eyes and sniffling.

My co-worker returned to the desk, but I talked to her for a little while longer as she aired all her concerned, mentally giving up before she even started the work needed to be self-sufficient. I, of course, assured her that we would work with her the best that we could to get her onto steady ground.

That’s when she told me that I reminded her of someone.

I get this a lot.

Casually, I listed off the few places that I have worked, the area of town that I frequent. I know that it’s fruitless, because I know the answer that they are going to give me.

I remind people of their guardian angel.


Apparently, I am busy because I am guardianing for a lot of people. I smiled and simply said that I think I have a common looking face.

She wiped her eyes and told me that I really helped her tonight and I opened the door and let her inside.

The Late Night Binge

May 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

I don’t think I can say this enough.

Working graveyard shift kind of sucks.

Besides all the obvious reasons like the zombiefied, fried, glassy-eyed stare that you get when you have to be awake during any part of the day, there’s the eating.

I get the irresistible urge to eat at 4am.

I’m not even hungry. Seriously. As I am typing this, I am chowing down on some deliciously buttery microwave popcorn.  Furthermore, I am vehemently opposed to microwaves during the day. What a hypocrite!

Easily, I can admit that I have an unhealthy relationship with food. That’s the first step, right? Pretty soon I will have to make amends to everyone that I ever hurt or stood up because I had to stop at Burgerville to get yet another smoothie and large fries.

I even hide it. That’s a classic sign of an eating disorder, isn’t it? Sneaking snacks at the bike rack after a long shopping trip because you don’t want to be noticed grazing at home? Hiding in the storage room at work wolfing down a handful of potato chips rather than sit at the desk and let your co-worker note the crumbs all over the front of your shirt?

There seriously could be a problem.

I’m not even dieting. I don’t have any sort of fitness plan that I am adhering to. There’s absolutely no reason to hide my scrunching and munching from anyone.

There’s some serious guilt at play here.

I don’t drink enough water, either. I used to drink like a fish – water that is. Other liquids are a completely different guilt-ridden entry. Somewhere down the line, I just decided unconsciously that I would get my water from other sources – like jelly beans and coffee. This is something I definitely need to undo consciously. Even the act of typing that makes me want to lick the fake, processed butter from my fingers and start anew.

Tomorrow is another day, after all.

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