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When asked what frustrates her most about her job, Joyce Rankin gives a simple answer: "That it has to be."

As director of the Out of the Cold program for the homeless at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church near Yonge and St. Clair, she feels blessed to be doing such useful work, watching over those who come in from the weather to eat a hot meal and doss down on the floor of the basketball court for the night. She overflows with talk as she shows a visitor around the basement set-up, from the welcoming station to the long serving table to the big kitchen in the back. Yorkminster Park even offers a "foot spa."

The program, she says, is a "well-oiled machine." The volunteers are cheerful and attentive. The cost for taking in up to 68 overnight visitors once a week is modest: about $18,000 a year. At a time of declining church attendance in the city, the enterprise gives Yorkminster Park a renewed sense of purpose.

And, yet, as proud as she is of the program, "I find it shameful. I'm disgusted it has to exist."

When Out of the Cold started up a quarter century ago, it was supposed to be a stopgap – a way of keeping vulnerable people safe while policy makers found a solution to the problem of homelessness. They never have.

It's not for lack of trying. One 2007 report estimated that governments spend $4.5-billion to $6-billion a year on services and supports for the homeless in Canada, or an average of between $30,000 and $40,000 for each homeless person.

The City of Toronto website lists dozens of services for the homeless, from health and dental clinics to emergency shelters to help with finding housing to programs for aboriginal and LGBTQ homeless.

The problem persists: This week, two men died in the cold. One had been living in a run-down truck; another was found at Yonge and Dundas wearing only jeans and a T-shirt.

A survey on April 17, 2013, found that 5,253 homeless people were sleeping outdoors or in various shelters and facilities. That month, 447 were sleeping rough.

Just as food banks set up to fill what was considered a temporary need have become a permanent part of the social infrastructure, the emergency shelter and care system for the homeless has become institutionalized.

"I always pray that this will be the last year, that we won't have to do this any more," says the minister of the church, Peter Holmes. But, every year, when it gets cold, a procession of people shuffles up Yonge Street on Wednesday nights past the glowing windows of the Roots store and the Mr. Thai restaurant to the church's back door.

One guy, Richard, a former construction worker in his fifties who had an accident and fell on hard times, has been coming to Yorkminster for at least 15 years.

As Mayor John Tory found when he went out this week to see how the city's homeless services were working, the problem often defies even the sincerest efforts. Some homeless people refuse to come off the streets despite the bitter cold. Many suffer from addiction and mental illness. Mr. Tory called it a scandal that governments are failing to provide the mentally ill with the help they need.

Ms. Rankin notices a growing number of people with mental-health problems among her regulars. One of them, Neil, a wiry middle-aged man with a grey beard, is known for his disjointed rants. Tonight's has something to do with a Jaguar, snow and the Beach district. The words pour out but don't add up.

Another, Mike Marson, 34, a big man known for the bright orange T-shirt he wears, says he is homeless by choice. He sleeps in the underground PATH system in the summer and the shelters in winter. But he would rather talk about city politics. He follows it avidly, hangs around City Hall and wants to know all about the new mayor. John Tory.

Yorkminster Park's gang is aging, with many grey beards and creaky limbs. But staff notice more younger people, too, many of them out-of-towners who are struggling with life in the city.

David Warner, 32, is a drug addict who says that both his parents were "junkies." He spent the previous night on heroin and found himself sleeping in a bank-machine kiosk. His hand, when shaken, is red and ice cold from the elements.

He has held odd jobs before – drywalling, framing, insulation work – but he says addiction pulled him back to the street after he separated from his girlfriend.

"I just don't get it. How did I get here?" he says, his eyes growing wet. "This can't be forever. This can't be the way I go out."

"But at least tonight, you're safe," Ms. Rankin says. Thanks to people like her and programs like Out of the Cold, those who come to the back door will have food and shelter this night. It may not be a solution to the stubborn problem of homelessness, but it's something.

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