The Salvation Army doesn't have enough toys for a growing number of Twin Cities children in need this year, and donations to its iconic red kettles are lagging, despite new smartphone payment options.

The Twin Cities nonprofit is short nearly $350,000 compared with this time last year, with officials blaming thinner shopping crowds on recent cold, snowy weather and the shortened season between Thanksgiving and Christmas. In addition, the rising popularity of online shopping has closed some stores where kettles were stationed. The nonprofit is also short on toys for 1,800 of 17,000 Twin Cities children in need this year.

On Wednesday, the Salvation Army started distributing toys to families but will continue accepting toy donations this week in hopes of closing the shortfall by Monday. If the community doesn't fill the gap, the nonprofit will buy toys with its fundraising money to ensure that every child gets a toy to unwrap this year.

"The people that registered for toys, they will get their toys whether we're able to collect them or not," said Dan Furry, a spokesman for the Salvation Army's Northern Division. "We're here to help."

The Salvation Army says more ­families are in need of toys this year, up from 14,300 children last year. In Minnesota, the lack of affordable housing is squeezing finances for many. Food shelves in 2018 hit a record 3.4 million visits, according to St. Paul advocacy group Hunger Solutions. Homelessness also reached a record high, rising 10% from 2015 to 2018, according to Wilder Research.

More people who don't quite qualify for public assistance struggle to afford rent or medical bills, said Brianna Miller of Prism, a Golden Valley nonprofit with a food shelf and housing programs. Toys for Tots, organized by the Marines, had provided half of the nonprofit's holiday toy drive but cut its supply to Prism this month, leaving the nonprofit scrambling to get enough toys for the more than 1,000 children across northwest suburbs.

"We want to help families maintain traditions," Miller said. "Sometimes those things are overlooked when people are struggling."

The Salvation Army helps 155,000 people in the metro each year, serving 1,100 hot meals each day and providing shelter to more than 600 people every night. Its $28 million annual budget also funds youth programs, mentoring, disaster relief, addiction counseling, food shelves and other social services.

The volunteer bell ringers deployed to more than 300 red kettles in the Twin Cities, a tradition for 129 years, aim to collect $3 million through Christmas Eve — part of an overall $12 million the nonprofit hopes to raise through the end of the month. Furry said the nonprofit is about halfway to its goal.

People can give online at or in person at red kettles, or drop off new, unwrapped toys this week at Salvation Army headquarters at 2445 N. Prior Av., in Roseville.

This year, the Salvation Army unveiled new mobile pay technology at Minnesota's more than 500 kettles and at kettles nationwide, allowing people to tap to donate via Apple Pay or Google Pay.

In the Twin Cities, the mobile pay option is "off to a slow start," Furry said, though "it's something we'd gauge to be successful" and the nonprofit hopes will increase in use in years to come. While online fundraising has grown in popularity and fewer people are carrying cash, the nonprofit doesn't see the slack in contributions as an indication the kettles are going out of style for donors, he said.

"The kettle is an important part of our fundraising effort," he said.

Like a lot of nonprofits, the Salvation Army depends on individual donors, who make up the bulk of the $30 million it brings in each year. The rest of its fundraising comes from grants, special events and program fees. In 2014, the nonprofit failed to reach its fundraising goals and had to make program cuts. In 2017, the Salvation Army also fell short of its goal by $100,000. If this year ends with a fundraising shortfall, Furry said the nonprofit could tap its reserves or cut programs.

The organization did rejoice in some good holiday news: a mysterious — and particularly generous — Twin Cities donor has returned.

Last week, the anonymous donor dubbed "St. Grand" dropped a sixth $1,500 donation of crisp $100 bills into red kettles outside Cub stores in Roseville and Arden Hills. The secretive philanthropist has dropped new $100 bills into kettles every season since 2011.

"We love to tell the story of St. Grand," Furry said. "It's always something we look forward to because it's kind of a legacy that's been created."