A lot of donations for homeless people come through Operation Nightwatch’s door, but there’s one Executive Director Rick Reynolds will never forget.

A man showed up to the Seattle homeless service provider with a large box full of new, waterproof, cold-weather boots, a valuable commodity to survive Seattle’s cold, damp winters.

Then, Reynolds took a closer look at the boots. They were all for the left foot.

“I think every nonprofit that takes donations probably has stories like that,” Reynolds said.


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Sometimes, the best intentions don’t always translate to the most practical aid. When service providers receive donations they don’t need or can’t use, it creates more of a burden for them, Reynolds said.

“It becomes an expense for us to dispose of these things,” agreed Maj. Martin Ross, director of Seattle Social Services for The Salvation Army.

The Project Homeless team reached out to eight of the largest homeless service providers working in the greater Seattle area to find out what donations are helpful to meet the needs of the county’s homeless population, estimated at around 11,200 people on a single night last year.

Here’s what they had to say.

Before you donate anything, here are some important things to know:

  1. Call ahead — Depending on the day, season and what a service provider’s reserves look like, needs will vary drastically. Before you run out to the store to buy a bag of wool socks, check to see if the service provider didn’t just receive a gigantic load of socks. Also, every service provider has their own method for dropping off items. Calling ahead will help make sure you’re on the same page.
  2. New vs. used — Some things have to be new. If you would like to donate undergarments — underwear, bras, socks, undershirts — give new ones. “It’s not comforting for a homeless guy to hand him your used pair of socks,” Reynolds said. Think of what you would want.
  3. Practical vs. what’s lying around — Before you clean out your closet, understand that everything you drop off will create additional work for someone else. If you hold a clothing drive, Jennifer Marquette with Compass Housing Alliance recommends sorting the clothes by size or type before dropping them off. Again, call first and ask for what an agency prefers.

Important items during winter months include:

  1. Hand and feet warmers — When it comes to helping people living outside during Seattle’s coldest months, hand and feet warmers arguably could be the single most important item. “Out of everything we give away, that’s life or death, those hand warmers,” said Brian Chandler, who oversees Union Gospel Mission’s outreach work. For many service providers doing outreach to people living outside, having the right items to offer people can make a huge difference in building trust. “When you’re tired or you’re hungry or you’re wet or freezing and somebody gives you what you need, it’s life saving,” Chandler said.
  2. Hats, gloves and coats — Whether you’re knitting a hat or picking one out in a store, Reynolds recommends subdued colors, like grays, blacks and browns. Operation Nightwatch primarily works with men and Reynolds said he’s noticed people gravitate to clothing choices that are less bright and flashy. “There’s always an exception,” Reynolds said, “but generally they don’t want to be seen or noticed.”  
  3. Blankets —Like a thick coat, blankets can provide much-needed defense from the cold. Many service providers keep a supply of blankets to hand out. When people do get into permanent housing, blankets are also a high priority. For example, Plymouth Housing is preparing to open a new permanent supportive housing apartment building in Seattle and said it needs thick, warm blankets to place on every bed.

Items always in need include:

  1. Socks —Socks are almost always in need, service providers said, because they provide a critical heat barrier during Seattle’s cold and damp winters. Some providers said wool socks are best, especially in winter. Others said anything substantial will work.
  2. Pants — Pants, especially larger sizes for men, are in high demand at Seattle’s Downtown Emergency Service Center. “There’s a lot of tops and shirts and sweaters and jackets … But pants tend to be a prized commodity,” said Olivia Jelensky, the volunteer and in-kind gifts manager for the DESC. In general, she said small clothing sizes are much easier to come by.
  3. Hygiene supplies — When it comes to all-season items that are hard to keep on the shelves, service providers pointed to hygiene items, especially items like deodorant, razors and shaving cream, tampons and menstrual pads, baby wipes and first-aid supplies. Depending on the services offered, travel size bottles versus large economy size might be more beneficial. “Giving people a feeling of cleanliness,” said Ross, of The Salvation Army, “gives a little more sense of dignity.”