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Local shelters need more than old rags to keep homeless warm this winter

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published November 4, 2015

 New, heavy-duty blankets are more useful than secondhand goods, shelters say. Gently used coats, hats, gloves and monetary donations are also helpful.

New, heavy-duty blankets are more useful than secondhand goods, shelters say. Gently used coats, hats, gloves and monetary donations are also helpful.

File photo by Deb Jacques


METRO DETROIT — It’s that time of year when we dig those cozy sweaters out from storage, crank the thermostat up and settle in for another bitter Michigan winter.

But for more than 12,000 people in the state, the effort to keep warm is so much more difficult. That’s because, according to the Community Housing Network, that’s how many people in Michigan are estimated to be without a place to call home.

The task of keeping those in need safe from the cold is a daily — and nightly — task for those at the South Oakland Shelter. According to Director of Development Megan Holt, the rotating shelter, housed each week at a different local congregation, is filled to capacity each and every night.

But beyond emergency shelter, SOS provides services to more than 525 people in need, including housing assistance, hunger support, transportation and more. This time of year, as temperatures drop, Holt said, generous donors are willing to step up and help SOS. But not all good intentions are as useful as others.

“Don’t get me wrong we’re so grateful to everyone who donates,” she said. “But we really need things like nonperishable food items, and we always need socks and underwear for adults and children. We always need those, and it doesn’t sound very glamorous.”

Hand and toe warmers are great items to donate to SOS too, so they can be passed along to guests who spend long days or even nights in the cold. Cold-weather accessories, like hats and gloves, are good too, as well as blankets. But the key is to think functionality over fashion, which might be difficult if the item is coming out of your own closet.

“For instance, a really little fleece blanket or a decorative throw might look nice in a home, but when someone is outside all day, it’s really not going to protect them,” Holt said. “A heavy-duty blanket or a hat that’s really meant to keep someone warm instead of just being a cute hat is better.”

Not only are hefty blankets better, but new blankets are particularly good, according to Maj. Russell Sjögren, general secretary and metro Detroit area commander for The Salvation Army Eastern Michigan Division. The Salvation Army is looking for similar donations as SOS, like underwear, socks, coats and cold-weather accessories. But when a client receives something that’s new, it truly makes a world of difference.

“New will wear longer, of course, and it just builds their self-esteem when they’re not just provided a hand-me-down,” said Sjögren. “We do take gently used, but new is always more appealing. It gives them a sense that they can lift their head a little bit higher — that they don’t have to be looked down at and scorned because people see them only as someone with torn and tattered wear.”

New items can increase a recipient’s confidence just enough that they might take further steps than they might have otherwise to become a part of society again, he said.

The blankets, coats and other warm essentials are given out at warming centers and The Salvation Army’s Bed and Bread trucks. But those are just a few of the things that both organizations need this and every year to help our neighbors who are doing without. The most important donations they can collect are monetary, since, Sjögren said, they’re able to make those gifts stretch so much further.

“We serve 3,240,046 meals per year, provide 736,395 nights of shelter for the homeless, and we do it all for 85 cents for every $1, every day of the year,” he said.

The Salvation Army will soon kick off its annual Red Kettle campaign, which is the nonprofit’s biggest fundraiser of the year, lasting through Christmas Eve. And on Nov. 14, SOS will host its seventh annual Dancing with the Detroit Stars fundraiser at the Townsend Hotel in Birmingham. Last year, the shelter raised $150,000 to support its mission.

But if you’re not able to give a coat, a blanket or even a buck to help those struggling with homelessness, you could still lend a hand. Sjögren said The Salvation Army is looking for volunteers to ring those trusty bells in front of stores this holiday season and collect the funds that can do so much good.

“We hope to raise enough money to accommodate the needs that exist. We need people to ring the bells, work the toy shops, prepare the meals at warming sites. There are a lot of opportunities,” he said.

To learn more about donating to or volunteering with The Salvation Army, call (877) Sal-Mich or visit

To learn about or to donate to the South Oakland Shelter, call (248) 809-3773 or visit