Simon Foster, director of operations for The Salvation Army in Seattle, weaves through a line that’s been forming outside Exhibition Hall since a little after the sun went down on Tuesday. It’s now nearly 7 p.m. and some people have been waiting in 28-degree weather for over an hour.

“How much longer?” one of roughly two dozen people in line asks. Some are dressed for the cold; most are not. None are dressed to be outside all night, which is where they’d be without this shelter at Seattle Center.

Foster looks at his watch. His eyes are bloodshot. He’s had eight hours of sleep in the last four days.

“Two minutes,” he says through two masks.

“Two minutes feels like years to us,” a woman says.

Foster pauses. “One minute 30 seconds,” he says, closes the door behind him and walks into The Salvation Army’s severe winter shelter.

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, The Bernier McCaw Foundation, Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Starbucks and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

After the hottest summer and wettest fall on record, people living outside in Seattle — one of the largest homeless populations in the United States — face cold temperatures not seen in decades as the year draws to a close. On Tuesday, the high was 23 degrees Fahrenheit, the coldest day in Seattle in 31 years. In the same week, King County hit a record high number of coronavirus cases.

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It’s likely not over yet, either: Cold, wet weather will continue the rest of the week. The Exhibition Hall shelter will stay open through Monday morning.

The toll has yet to be totaled. The cold has already killed two people and landed about 15 in Harborview Medical Center for hypothermia and cold-related injuries, but neither of the deceased was likely homeless, according to the county medical examiner, and a spokesperson for Harborview said the 15 being treated are “from all walks of life.”

The Exhibition Hall severe weather shelter and another one in Pioneer Square, run by a Lutheran nonprofit, have been mostly full each night — on Monday night, when temperatures dropped into the teens, there were more than 200 people between the two. By Thursday night, this shelter almost filled up, packing 147 people in. Other emergency shelters are in City Hall, a Mennonite church in Lake City and an American Legion post in West Seattle.

These shelters have likely prevented several deaths, but they’ve stretched a homeless shelter system already threadbare from coronavirus and a labor shortage. The cold has also forced nonprofits to return to placing many guests in big, open rooms — a way of sheltering people that many of their leaders have tried to swear off because of COVID-19 concerns.

Inside the vaulted Exhibition Hall — which before the pandemic hosted fashion shows, galas and book fairs — a hundred mats sit empty between concrete columns, and stacks of blankets sit in the corner. There are 50 cots ready for deployment when the mats run out.

“Let’s play ball,” says Mark Thomas, who’s sitting at a check-in table with hot drinks and cloth masks. His long, graying hair flows over a Seahawks hoodie, and around his mask, 14 bedazzled piercings sparkle from his ears to his brow. 

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Thomas normally works from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Salvation Army’s Sodo shelter, but this time of year he becomes nocturnal and kicks it up to 15-hour shifts.

He won’t leave until 9 the next morning.

Employees like Thomas are worth every dollar to The Salvation Army right now. A labor shortage that’s swept the nation has hit homelessness nonprofits — which often pay low wages for tough jobs — especially hard. Salvation Army officials say they raised wages during the pandemic and staffing levels are higher than many organizations, with about a quarter of its jobs in Seattle unfilled.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan tried to buttress this sagging workforce at the end of the year by offering up to $150 a shift to those who come in to work, but the spread of the omicron variant in King County is still being felt. The Salvation Army has seen 40% of staff call out in the last week because of quarantine, vacation or because they simply couldn’t get to town in the snow.

“That is astronomical,” said Foster, the director of operations. They’ve put up 18 staff members in Seattle hotels so they could keep coming to work.

Next to Thomas at the check-in table sits Michael Dorsey in a knit blue beanie and a big black jacket. He usually works nights at The Salvation Army because he has a part-time job in office administration during the day.

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Through the night, Dorsey and the other staff will constantly remind people to wear masks, and after reminders, people usually will, until they’re at their mats. 

Although data on new COVID-19 spread among the homeless population is poor, case numbers in King County shelters, encampments and homeless housing haven’t yet reflected the surge the rest of the county is seeing. That could be because Public Health – Seattle & King County is not testing at congregate sites unless a confirmed coronavirus case is reported; the agency performed 1,338 tests this month so far, 300 fewer than in November.

Vaccination rates at most Salvation Army shelters in Seattle are between 40 to 50%, though one at Harborview Hall boasts a rate of 75%.

The pandemic and the resulting outpouring of federal and local resources have been good for some homeless people, landing them in hotel rooms or more private spaces in 24/7 shelters where they don’t have to leave for the day and can store their things, but it’s also meant fewer indoor spots overall because most of the mats on the floors have disappeared.

That leaves more people outside. 

Tuesday night, though, they begin to file in. The first in line, a 35-year-old woman who’s been waiting an hour and 20 minutes for the doors to open, walks in wearing a cloth mask. Thomas asks her name.

“Leticia Diaz,” she says. 

Diaz has been homeless on and off for about four years, fleeing domestic violence and struggling with a methamphetamine addiction.

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But her spirits are high on this night. She’s a month sober, and just spent her first Christmas sober in 26 years. She’s been sleeping in a women’s shelter at First Presbyterian on First Hill and spending her days at the center for women at Mary’s Place, tucked in between Amazon buildings a 30-minute walk away. 

“I get offered drugs left and right out there when I’m out,” she says. “That’s why I like to stay inside.”

Diaz was drawn to The Salvation Army shelter because of her faith. But many of the other people in the shelter tonight have had to leave other shelters, Foster said, or “been kicked out because of behaviors, or because there weren’t more mental health resources.” 

“The vast majority of these folks we already know,” Foster said.

When he was out in the lobby earlier, he saw someone The Salvation Army had just housed with a voucher from the state, but the person’s partner was going through a mental health crisis and the landlord kicked them out, Foster said.

The group tonight though, on the whole, seems glad to be inside, glad they’re allowed to bring their pets, glad to be able to bring their significant others and fall asleep holding hands. 

“Something kept telling me to come here,” Diaz says. “I love the little peacefulness and the staff.”