The winter emergency shelter in Midvale has begun to fill up even though the first snowflake has yet to fall in the Salt Lake Valley.

"People are homeless. People are on waiting lists. They're taking advantage of the option regardless of whether the weather is bad or good," said Maun Alston, executive director of Travelers Aid Society.Nearly 200 men, women and children are already spending the night in the Midvale center, which Travelers Aid manages as an overflow facility to the Salt Lake Community Shelter and Self Sufficiency Center downtown from Nov. 1 to April 30. Last year, it averaged 312 per night. Alston expects the number to be higher this winter.

"There are not a lot of winter shelters," Alston said. "But there are a lot of programs that provide emergency shelter."

Some are set up specifically for women and children or victims of domestic abuse or mentally ill people. A few churches and religious ministries will find space in their buildings for people to bed down on extremely cold nights. The Salt Lake Rescue Mission uses the chapel floor.

Outside of Salt Lake City and Ogden, which account for 92 percent of homeless people in Utah, most cities don't have general havens for street people. In Provo, Community Action Services provides vouchers for people to stay in local motels.

"It's amazing how fast the building is filling up," Gary Doud said of the new Ogden Rescue Mission which opened in October. "Of course, this is the time of year (when) people are looking for a place to stay."

Most shelters are full year round. None turn people away, especially when the mercury dips below freezing. If one doesn't have room, staff try to find space elsewhere.

"We're here to help people, no questions asked," said Chuck Rostkowski, director of the St. Anne's Center in Ogden. "Usually it's a warm shower and a bed."

Rostkowski finds the shelter typically fills up near the end of the month regardless of the time of year. Homeless people who work usually can afford a motel for the first couple weeks of the month. "By mid-month, they've pretty well run out of money."

Cold weather and snow also bring people in, though not everyone. Some hardy souls prefer to remain outdoors.

"There are a lot of people who don't want to come into a shelter for a variety of reasons, so some are out on the street," Rostkowski said.

In Salt Lake City, Pamela Atkinson, chairwoman of the emergency winter housing program, tries to make sure campers stay bundled up. She and others drive the Volunteers of America homeless outreach van under viaducts, along railroad tracks and near creek beds looking for people who need food or winter clothing. It's not unusual to find people with frostbitten toes or fingers.

Atkinson also tells the alcohol users how to drink.

"If they're going to drink, I'd rather they just drink half the bottle first and then snuggle in," she said. That way they don't pass out drunk in the frigid temperatures and freeze to death. No one died in the elements last winter, and Atkinson hopes to accomplish the same thing this season.

Donations typically pour into homeless shelters in November and December. St. Anne's usually receives about half of what it will use all year during those two months.

"This time of year, of course, people are giving stuff to us. After Christmas, it sort of all goes away," said.

Salt Lake Community College students are among those mounting drives to stock pantry shelves and fill closets. "We have found that shelters are alarmingly low on food and clothing," said David Peacock, student vice president of campus affairs.

SLCC student clubs are going to take their efforts a step further. They plan to build cardboard shanties on campus next week and sleep in them for two nights using donated clothing and supplies.