Homeless shelters welcome donations of money and various items such as food and personal hygiene products, and they are always in need of volunteers as well. The best way to start donating to a local shelter is to give them a call and find out their current and most important needs.
Homeless shelters can always use food, toiletries and financial contributions. For anything other than money, it is important to call the shelter ahead of time, because a shelter tends to have limited storage space. Also, often shelters are only staffed part-time, and you'll want to know when you can drop supplies off.
Homeless shelters and other emergency shelters often are looking for children-related items--foods that kids like, new toys and games, books, dolls and stuffed animals. In addition, shelters usually can use bath towels, washcloths, and sheets, as well as personal hygiene products--liquid hand soap, deodorant, disposable razors, toothpaste and toothbrushes, feminine hygiene items and toilet paper. Over-the-counter medical supplies also tend to be in short supply much of the time--pain relievers, cough syrup, and adhesive bandages, among other items. Homeless shelters also love gift cards from grocery stores and gas stations. Items should be new, or at least in very good used condition. Keep in mind that adults require good clothing for work and to apply for jobs, and children need clothes for attending school. Many homeless shelters have websites and keep a wish list there.
Shelters will welcome a variety of canned food--vegetables, fruit, soup, and tuna, in the regular-sized cans rather than institutional size (again, due to lack of storage space). They also typically like donations of rice and pasta, macaroni and cheese, cereal, coffee and peanut butter. It's important to bring food that won't spoil, although many shelters are happy to receive fresh produce if you clear it with them first.
Keep in mind that these donations can be declared as tax deductions for charitable contributions. Both monetary gifts and "gifts in kind" are legal tax deductions. You'll need to have a form or paper signed by shelter staff acknowledging the value of your contribution.
Shelters always can use volunteer assistance. You might be able to prepare or serve meals, do minor household repairs, provide transportation for residents to go to appointments, babysit while parents look for a job, or help out in the office. Sometimes the shelter works hand-in-hand with a food bank where you can volunteer.