Shelter providers and the city expanded options for Boston’s homeless population to stem the spread of COVID — and that brought an added bonus of better connecting people with housing and treatment.

“We have discovered that non-congregate settings are more likely to bring people in than typical mass shelters,” said Joe Finn, the executive director of the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance. “And so we’re grateful that the Commonwealth's been working with us to make certain that we can secure the right amount of capacity.”

Last year, providers and the city limited capacity in shelters and offered more two- to four-person rooms to minimize exposure. It was a learning experience for shelter operators and officials in reaching unhoused people in Boston.

Local advocates hope that the new options are here to stay.

“Unhoused people have been telling us for years that congregate shelters aren't safe,” said Cassie Hurd, the executive director of the Cambridge-based Material Aid and Advocacy Program. “And this past year and a half, COVID has reaffirmed that.”

Officials and shelter operators have long encountered unhoused people reluctant to go into shelters, exacerbated by concerns over contracting COVID.

“We do recognize we can't go back to the kind of overcrowded system that we had prior to the COVID pandemic because the risk of COVID outbreaks is all too real in a homeless population,” said Jim Greene, who works in shelter outreach in Boston’s Department of Neighborhood Development. “So we're building on what worked during last year and last winter to maintain opportunities for people to get housed and have safe levels of occupancy in the shelters.”

Conversations around winter preparedness start as early as the summer, Greene said, and people who are hesitant to stay in shelters most of the year often reconsider when temperatures drop.

“We’re kind of operating on all cylinders — adding shelter capacity, trying to identify housing opportunities for folks,” said Greene.

At Rosie’s Place, a shelter and service provider for poor and homeless women near Mass and Cass, the need for all their services is high, said director of communications Jamie Doyle. To stem the spread of COVID-19, Rosie’s Place expanded to three-week overnight stays for their 20 beds, limiting turnover.

“It’s just more critical than ever,” she said. “Throughout this pandemic, we have just spent our days helping women with the most basic and the most critical services.”

It’s not just overnight shelters: need during the day is up, too. Rosie’s Place has seen higher demand for meals and legal aid with evictions, along with day and overnight shelter.

Hurd worries about the city’s capacity to keep people warm and safe during the day.

“South Station is now under construction — people aren’t able to spend as much time there. Libraries have more limited capacity, or at least at this point in the delta variant,” she said. “The robust options need to be offered.”

Local advocates and officials alike point to the ultimate goal: getting people experiencing homelessness into more permanent housing.

By getting more people into long-term housing, Greene added, it also frees up shelter space for others. There are roughly 200 free beds out of the 950 total in Boston — not counting transitional housing or treatment beds — and the city is looking to offer more.

Hurd points to federal funds, such as from the American Rescue Plan, that could be used to ease access to housing.

“A huge gap is that we have these funds coming in,” Hurd said. “We need to be just pivoting away from warehousing people in shelters and towards what we know is the evidence-based and more compassionate and cost-effective means of addressing homelessness, which is housing.”

All these goals become more urgent in the face of low temperatures. Last year, Boston’s first snowstorm was just before Halloween.