It was 9 p.m. Wednesday, the temperature was 17 below zero, and a group of men dressed in layers were in the lobby of the Duluth Transit Center, waiting for their ride home.
For the 12th night since it opened, home would be the Evergreen Senior Center in West Duluth, known on subzero nights since Jan. 17 as the City Center West Warming Center.
The warming center is a pilot project put together by St. Louis County, the city of Duluth and the nonprofit agency known as Chum to provide a warm, dry alternate site for people who are without shelter of their own on the coldest nights.
That night, 26 people would sign in to the facility at 5830 Grand Ave., said Lee Stuart, Chum's executive director. The average has been 22 per night. The average temperature on those nights has been 15 below zero.
It's an experiment, and those most affected by the experiment are calling it a success. Or at least that was the view of three men - the group was almost entirely male - who shared their thoughts while waiting for a Duluth Transit Authority bus.
"I love it, man," said Kyle Itkonen, 31. "I feel so much more welcome out there."
Itkonen was contrasting the warming center to Chum's drop-in shelter downtown, which houses 80 people year-round.
Frank Saice, 52, said he and his wife have been homeless for about four months and don't care for the downtown shelter either. But he raved about the warming center.
"They've been treating us good," said Saice, who was wearing a red knit hat. "They've been taking great care of us."
He proceeded to list some of the donated food that was brought in during the five nights he and his wife stayed there: Kentucky Fried Chicken, two big platters of Erbert & Gerbert's sandwiches, 20 boxes of pizza from Domino's, four big pans of homemade lasagna, pop, chips, bread, peanut butter and jelly, apples, oranges, bananas.
Mike Thunder, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who has been homeless for all of his six weeks or so in Duluth, called the warming center relaxing and stress-free.
"I can't explain how peaceful it is; how great it is to have this place on cold nights for the homeless," said Thunder, a Native American with red hair and an Uncle Sam goatee. "And just that warm feeling knowing that someone actually cares, people actually care. They're willing to open up a senior citizens center for us to ... have us keep warm on cold nights."
Initially, some of the senior residents who use the center in the daytime expressed reservations, said Alice Sommers, who is on the senior center's board as its secretary and also is a delegate to Chum for her church, Our Savior's Lutheran.
But any hesitation has vanished.
"They're real positive," said Sommers, 68, who lives in West Duluth with her husband, Larry. "Everything's fine when we go there the next day. You don't even know that they've been there."
It's a "bustling" senior center serving about 40 seniors a day, said Jim Filby Williams, the city's director of public administration.
"The senior center for these folks is a really important part of their quality of life," Filby Williams said. "We're grateful that the senior center staff and our senior center participants have been willing to adjust their routine to allow this pilot to go forward."
Meanwhile, it's hoped an overnight shelter in Lincoln Park will open next week, its organizer said.
Pastor Jack Swonger of the Walking Victorious ministry in Superior said meetings took place this week to gather volunteers to staff the four-bedroom house that will be known as Esther House. It follows the same plan as Ruth House, which has been open as an overnight shelter in Superior for several weeks.
Ruth House typically has been housing six women and seven men per night, Swonger said. He and other volunteers make a 10 p.m. food-and-coffee run to four individuals who prefer to sleep outside.
Swonger said he doesn't want to reveal the location of the Esther House until he has the volunteers in place. Like Ruth House, it will be open when the temperature is 20 degrees or colder.
The determination of whether the City Center West Warming House will be open on a given night is made based on whether the predicted temperature at Duluth's Sky Harbor Airport is below zero, said Adam Fulton, manager of the city's community planning division.
He consults with Keith Hamre, the city's director of planning and economic development; and Phil Jents, the city's communications and policy officer. They then notify Stuart, who gets the word out.
With low temperatures expected to be well above zero, the center won't be open this weekend.
Itkonen's lone complaint about the center is that it isn't open often enough.
"The biggest thing that would be a huge improvement is for it to be open (at) the level of freezing," he said. "Thirty-two (degrees) would be ideal."
Itkonen has been homeless off and on since moving to Duluth from the Iron Range 13 or 14 years ago, he said. Until he became seriously ill earlier in January, he had spent most of the previous year living outdoors.
"Many, many times (last) year, I've been in a stairwell sleeping," he said. "Nine out of 10 times security woke me up and told me to leave."
The one thing that would improve the center for Saice, he said, would be mats on the floor. "Even on a blanket (the floor) gets hard on your body," he said. "I'm getting old."
The mats can't happen, Stuart said, because technically the facility doesn't meet codes as a place for sleep. Nonetheless, people are being allowed to sleep, she said. Both she and Lt. Ken Zwak, west area commander for the Duluth police, denied a rumor that police come in and wake up people who have fallen asleep.
None of the three men interviewed said they had experienced or witnessed anything like that happening.
But Itkonen, a self-described night owl, said he likes the fact that he can stay awake and on his phone. The downtown shelter has a 10 p.m. lights-out rule, he said.
Although Saice was at the transit center, he wasn't going to spend that night at the warming center. Someone had approached him and his wife earlier in the day, he said, and asked about their story. After listening, the questioner offered to put them up in a motel for the night.
"That was real nice," he said. "Those people must have had a big heart."
He and his wife were deeply grateful for one night with a bed, a shower and cable TV, Saice said. Ironically, they were missing out on one thing they would have gotten at the warming center: food. He was at the transit center hoping to solve that problem.
Thunder's homeless days are over. He was scheduled to move into a house Saturday, and he invited Itkonen to stay there as well.
But he was unequivocal in his praise for the warming center. Asked what he would change about it, Thunder paused thoughtfully, and then said: "Honestly from my heart if there's anything I'd change about it? No. I ain't got no words for it. It's just so great."
When the City Center West Warming Center is open, the Duluth Transit Authority is providing free transportation.
Free rides begin at 9 p.m., an hour before the warming center opens, and are offered again in the morning until 7:30, an hour after it closes, according to a DTA news release.
To qualify for the free ride, the individual need only tell the bus operator, "I am going to the warming center/shelter."
A bus stop is located directly in front of City Center West at 5830 Grand Ave.
The DTA's board voted to offer the free rides at their meeting Wednesday, according to the news release.