The discourse has focused mainly on the number of beds, but those who use the shelter system say the real problem is the quality of accommodations. During the recent cold spell in Toronto, with record-low temperatures that could cause frostbite in just half an hour, The Globe spoke to numerous homeless people who said the conditions inside the existing drop-in centres and shelters are so deplorable or dangerous that they’d rather brave the elements. (Most of the people The Globe interviewed asked not to be identified because of the circumstances that led them to the streets.)

The city and shelter workers acknowledge the system is deeply flawed, but say they are doing the best they can with limited resources and increasing demand. That’s an unacceptable answer for activists who have urged the city for years to overhaul the system that some users feel forces them to choose between warmth and safety.