Needed items and services might include:
- Clothing. The lack of clean, well-fitting clothes and shoes causes great hardship beyond exposure to the elements—it hurts one's self-image and one's chance to get ahead. People experiencing homelessness must travel light, with few opportunities to safely store or adequately clean what they can't carry. On job interviews, a poorly dressed person has little chance for success. Give your clean clothes to those who could use them. Before you give your own clothes or start a clothing drive, talk to your local shelter and find out what items they really need. Most have limited storage space, and can't use winter clothes in summer or vice versa. Some serve only a certain group of people. Please clean the clothes before you donate them.
- In-kind services and materials. Service providers may be able to use copying, printing, food, transportation, marketing assistance, computer equipment and assistance, electrical work, building materials, plumbing, etc.
- Household goods or other items. Service providers may need items such as kitchen utensils, furniture, books, toys, games, stuffed animals, dolls, diapers, etc.
- Books. People experiencing homelessness may have limited access to a library and find that there is little for them to do when spending a night at a shelter. Find out if your local shelter would appreciate donations of books. Consider organizing a book drive to create a small library at the shelter if there is not already one there.
- Computers. Many non-profit organizations have a difficult time purchasing expensive but essential equipment such as computers. If you have a machine you no longer need, a local shelter or service provider might greatly appreciate the donation. Shelter guests might also appreciate the donation of machines for their use, although you should check if a shelter would have space to set up public computers.
- Homeless “survival kits.” Create and distribute kits that include items such as cups, pots, pans, soap, shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrushes, and cosmetics. (Try coordinating this through a group that gives out meals from a van, for example.) During cold weather, organize drives for blankets, coats, hats, scarves, mittens, socks, and the like.
- Phone calls. Help people experiencing homelessness contact loved ones by offering the opportunity to make free long distance calls on holidays. Donate to or organize a cell phone drive for the homeless.
- Job opportunities. Encourage your company, school, or place of worship to hire people experiencing homelessness (if they are not already working). Most unemployed homeless adults desperately want to work, but need an employer to give them a chance.
- Support for a homeless person or family. As people move out of a shelter or transitional housing program, consider raising money to contribute for a security deposit, or assist by contributing household goods, babysitting, or moral support. See if your local shelter has a partnering program.
Other things you might do to contribute include:
- Raise funds for a program. Ask your group to abstain from one meal and donate the proceeds to a shelter or soup kitchen. Sponsor a benefit concert or coffee house featuring local musicians and poets (Don’t forget to include homeless and formerly homeless performers!). Organize a walk-a-thon or a yard sale and donate the proceeds.
- Consider giving directly to people experiencing homelessness. Deciding whether or not to give to panhandlers is a personal decision. Some may not give money out of fear that it may be spent supporting an addiction. Although this is occasionally true, the money also may help someone buy a meal, afford housing, buy clothes, purchase an ID to stay in a shelter, pay for transportation to a job, childcare, healthcare, support a family member—the possibilities are numerous. In some cases, instead of giving money, people carry gift certificates to restaurants or granola bars, peanut butter crackers, sandwiches, or fruit to give to homeless people.
Smile. Whether or not you choose to give change, please don’t look away from homeless people as if they do not exist. Making eye contact, saying a few words, or smiling can reaffirm the humanity of a person at a time when homelessness seems to have stripped it away.