Illustration of a group of people and a dog standing outside

IIllustrations by Leeandra Cianci

What to donate to homeless shelters – and what to skip

From soups to towels, donated items make a big difference for people staying at shelters

Spend enough time with anyone in the GTA and sooner or later the talk will come around to housing prices. But imagine if your concern wasn’t how much you could afford, but rather if you could afford any shelter at all?

A recent study estimated that the homeless population in the city of Toronto is nearly 9,000 (8,715 people, by their count). This number encompasses people living outdoors, and in shelters, drop-in centres, health and treatment facilities and other programs. Every night in our city, there are 2,000 homeless youth and only 384 shelter beds available to them.

In a city with sky-high housing costs, homelessness doesn’t discriminate. It can affect someone who has lost their job, a person going through a divorce, somebody who just doesn’t make enough money to cover their bills or a teen who was taken away from a dangerous living situation. And homeless shelters are often the only place for them to turn for temporary help.

“Our typical clients are here through no fault of their own,” says Steve Doherty, executive director of Etobicoke’s Youth Without Shelter, a United Way-funded agency. “A lot have had parents who are dealing with addiction or mental health issues.”

It’s a similar story at Blue Door Shelters a United Way-funded agency, which runs three different emergency shelters — for youth, families and men — in York Region. “We’re helping people in the short term,” says Emmy Kelly, Blue Door’s business director. “We work with everyone to find solutions for housing. They can stay for a few weeks or a month while looking for a job. For others, it’s a longer experience with homelessness.”

Shelters try hard to fill the gaps for people experiencing homelessness, from providing a place to sleep out of the cold to meals to basic hygiene items to clothing. But their budgets are razor-thin, and they need assistance from donors.

Illustration of a young woman handing a man a gift card

What to donate

Beyond monetary contributions, there are lots of ways to support homeless shelters in your community, like donating what’s perpetually in short supply. Because each one is different, and some don’t have large storage capabilities, it’s always good idea to call ahead and confirm which items are on your local shelter’s wish list. Here’s some of what to add to your donation list:

Clothing: Needs change by season. Doherty jokes that, like the fashion industry, shelters are always thinking one or two seasons ahead. Many don’t have the bandwidth to launder used clothing, so new is your best bet. Think underwear (boxer shorts are usually in high demand), socks, pyjamas, hoodies, sweatpants and seasonal garb, such as winter coats and swimming trunks. Items in a variety of sizes for men, women and children make great donations.

Food: Shelf-stable proteins, like beans, tuna and peanut butter, never go to waste. Look for items that can be used to pack lunches or whip up quick meals. Think just-add-water noodle cups and ready-to-heat soups.

Toiletries: We all think about toothpaste, toothbrushes and combs, but shaving cream, razors and baby shampoo are also welcome, along with feminine hygiene products and makeup. Skin-care products, including acne and sensitive formulas, are appreciated.

Footwear: Slippers are a comforting item and an asset in communal living situations. New slippers for adults and children are highly sought-after. Running shoes, winter boots and steel-toe boots — new or nearly new, depending on the shelter — are always put to good use.

Towels: With a large influx of people passing through a shelter’s doors, new bath towels are always in high demand.

Gift cards: On cold nights when shelters are filling up, $5 coffee-shop gift cards are great for staff to give out — they mean people waiting for a bed can keep warm while they stand by. “Gift cards act as a currency,” says Doherty, referring to the clients who help out around the youth shelter. “Going for lunch to McDonald’s or Tim Hortons with their friends is really important,” he says. “The things we take for granted are really special to them.” But you don’t have to stick to food-related gift cards: One to a mall or department store can help purchase necessities that don’t show up in the donation box, such as proper-fitting bras. Some people who live in shelters still have access to their cars, so gas gift cards can help them go to appointments or apartment viewings.

Illustration of a person handing a man with a dog a jar of peanut butter

Don’t forget other common items

Homeless shelters, women’s shelters and food banks are all trying to fill similar gaps for people. While the high-demand items above are at the top of homeless shelters’ lists, it never hurts to add some of the following to your donation. They’ll be gratefully accepted and — best of all — put to use right away.

Transit tokens: It’s not uncommon for homeless youth to have to choose between eating and transportation to work or school. Tokens help them get to where they need to be without compromise.

Diapers and formula: Family shelters serve a wide range of ages, from infants through older adults. Diapers (from newborn all the way through toddler — or overnight-size) and formula help keep their smallest clientele well taken care of.

What to maybe skip

While shelters appreciate all well-intended donations, some items simply can’t be used due to safety issues or lack of storage facilities. Perishable food is a good example. While you may not want to waste leftovers — like the party platters that went untouched at your event — most shelters can’t accept them because of health and safety regulations (besides, lifTOvers would be more than happy to take them!). It’s a similar story for furniture: While it’s helpful for people who are starting a new life away from the shelter, there often isn’t space to store it in the interim. However, the Furniture Bank is just one of the places where you can donate your gently used stuff.

Weekend project

Want to do something meaningful right away? We’ve come up with a few ideas to get you started this coming weekend.

Lunch duty: Go out and buy supplies a shelter will need to pack several lunches. Kids will love having a say in the selection; let them choose juice boxes, granola bars, fruit cups and other non-perishable snacks.

Clean up: Create cleaning kits that can go with people to their new homes. Fill a bucket with the usual suspects, like toilet bowl cleaner and a brush, all-purpose cleaning spray, glass cleaner, disinfectant wipes, sponges, paper towels and rubber gloves. Call ahead to ensure your shelter has space to accommodate this donation.

Do a fundraiser: It doesn’t have to be formal and take weeks of planning. It could be as simple as collaborating with a few people at the office to set up a bake sale, or creating candygrams with your kid’s classroom (a printed card with a lollipop or wrapped candy does the trick), with donations going to help your selected shelter.

Double up on shopping: When you go to a store to buy something, get in the routine of picking up an item for someone in need, too. It can be something small, like a can of tuna or a package of underwear. The goal is to make a habit of helping, so your donation isn’t just a one-time thing.

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