Homeless shelters around the country are in need of help all year long—here’s how you can best offer your time, money, and energy.

By Lauren Phillips
Updated June 29, 2018
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Homeless Shelter
Susan Shek Photography

You know homelessness is a huge problem. But do you know where your nearest homeless shelter is, who runs it, or what services it provides?

You may not see it on a day-to-day basis in your community, but, according to the 2017 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, 553,742 people across the United States were experiencing homelessness on a single night in 2017—and homelessness increased nationally for the first time in seven years.

Like food banks, homeless shelters are often in need of volunteers and donations, but donating the right things is important, as well-intended but misguided efforts can stretch already limited resources.

“We want everything that we do at the Bowery mission to speak dignity into people’s lives,” says James Winans, Chief Development Officer at The Bowery Mission, located in New York City.

The Bowery Mission's efforts include building trust with those they serve and help them find a path out of homelessness through compassionate care activities, individual action plans, transitional housing, and preventative care strategies, among other efforts.

Recently, the editorial staff of Real Simple volunteered at The Bowery Mission’s Tribeca campus to unbox new sets of mattresses donated by Leesa and sheets donated by West Elm for 50 beds in the group’s short-term women’s program. (Leesa donates one mattress for every ten sold—learn more here.)

Susan Shek

Afterward, Real Simple spoke with Winans and Laurie-Anne Bentley, Director of Partnerships at The Bowery Mission, about the best ways people can help homeless shelters work toward a solution to homelessness.

Homeless shelters are often in need of new sheets, new mattresses, and new socks, Bentley says. Shelters often can’t reuse these items when they are donated second-hand, especially if they are not in pristine condition. (Donations to homeless shelters are like donations to food banks in that large donations of items in varied conditions—or of items the organization can’t use—can often be more hindrance than help.)

Bentley says men’s underwear (new only), winter gear, and reusable melamine plates are all needed at The Bowery Mission’s campuses; they may be needed at your local shelter, too—work with representatives from the shelter to determine what new items are most needed, or what gently used items the shelter can accept and use.

Toiletry kits also make great donations, Bentley says: Just be sure to provide predominantly travel-sized items, as many people using these donated items move around often. And don’t forget tampons and pads for women’s shelters!

“People are more aware of the homeless in winter,” Bentley says. This is also when people are most likely to make donations, while the rest of the year, volunteers and donations can be scarce.

It may seem like the easy way out, but a monetary donation can go a long way, especially when you combine it with volunteer efforts. Homeless shelters and aid organizations can often do more with financial donation through their charitable network than they can with a donation of the same value in food or clothes.

Many aid organizations—including Win, which provides safe housing and services to help homeless women and their children in New York—use social media to share updates on their efforts and request specific donations and volunteers. Follow organizations and shelters in your area to stay up-to-date on what’s happening and be able to jump in and help in the event of a crisis.

Of course, the very best action you can take is to get in touch with your local homeless shelter to find out what particular crises they face. “The way to understand what’s going on in your community is to volunteer,” Winans says.

Every community is different, and what works in one may not work in another. Ask what items the individuals facing homelessness in your community most need or what service projects are most effective, and work to rally friends, family, and neighbors to help.

For more information, visit the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness’s website for relevant information and resources for each state, or ask your local government or community leaders about local aid organizations.