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As temperatures dip, the city's homeless must often choose between freezing conditions and sometimes dangerous public shelters

Eyrish, who has experienced homelessness off and on over the past few years, panhandles in Toronto on Jan. 12, 2018. While he is precariously housed right now, he said he’d rather sleep on the street than go to a shelter or a drop-in.

Shawn stamped his feet in the -23 C cold, slapping hands against his thighs to beat some warmth back into his fingers.

"I'll be back in an hour," he said, before heading off into the freezing night.

Behind him, from inside a yellow tent in an alcove near the downtown Toronto intersection of Queen Street and Spadina, his partner Barb offers a muffled acknowledgment. The couple are homeless and have been sleeping outdoors even through the depths of this winter's potentially lethal cold weather.

Together with two dogs and a friend who calls himself Chibi, they've lived in their tent setup for almost two months, preferring the street to the city's shelters and drop-in centres.

Chibi tightens his jacket against the cold. He and his friends Barb and Shawn have been sleeping on Toronto’s streets despite the potentially lethal cold.

"It's safer out here," Barb said. "There's no bugs. No one's going to beat you up or steal your shit."

As temperatures have plummeted this winter, Toronto's emergency housing system has been stretched to the max, sparking an emotional public debate about whether the city has underfunded services for its most vulnerable residents. Shelters are running around 95-per-cent full. During the recent two-week cold snap, drop-in centres and emergency respite sites were overflowing.

After first voting against it in early December, Toronto Mayor John Tory this month asked the federal government to open the Moss Park Armoury as an emergency warming centre, which includes 100 cots and access to showers. It will stay open until the province finishes renovations to a building on George Street, which then takes over with space for 75 clients until April 15.

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.

"I can leave my stuff here when I go work and know it won't be stolen," Chibi said of his makeshift home.

By work, Chibi means anything from panhandling to collecting bottles and cans, or "flying a sign" – seeking change from cars stopped at red lights during rush hour.

Chibi's friend Matt Buckaway does the same work, rotating between various locations downtown, depending on traffic, weather and how many other people he's competing with. On a good day, he can make $30 to $50 an hour, he says. On a bad day he makes less than $5.

Barb says shelters aren’t clean or safe enough. On the streets they help each other out, even having other homeless youth referred to them for extra hygiene supplies.

But it's not just the charity of strangers the group relies on.

When Barb and Shawn first set up their tent, outreach workers started dropping off occasional supplies, such as hygiene products and warm clothes. It wasn't long before the couple had more than they needed, so they started giving them away to anyone else who needed them.

"The outreach workers are angels," Shawn said. "The shelters they work for, though, not so much."

Chibi joined Barb and Shawn in the fall, at first using just a sleeping bag on the sidewalk. He was drawn to the spot because there can be safety in numbers, he said. Soon, other street youth started showing up, asking if there were any supplies to share. Barb, Shawn and Chibi were happy to help.

"We were actually getting referrals from other people," Chibi said. "We call it streets to streets. We the poor, for the poor." He even found discarded cellphones while dumpster diving, got them fixed, and gave them to friends who needed them, he said.

Mr. Buckaway himself is 25 and has spent the past five of those years homeless. During past bouts of extreme cold, he says he's tried calling the phone line at 129 Peter St., the location of the city's central intake for people needing access to the shelter system. He said he usually gets referred to a warming centre or the Seaton House shelter.

"It's basically drug central," Mr. Buckaway said. "So I'm, like, 'No way.' I'd rather go find a stairwell or something."

Jordan has been homeless for 20 years. Sleeping under the Gardiner Expressway, he said he’d rather brave the frigid cold than go to a shelter or a drop-in.

Many of his friends feel the same way. On a recent afternoon, as the cold deepened, Mr. Buckaway met up with a man who calls himself Eyrish. He was panhandling outside the Yonge and Dundas subway station with his dog, Nez Paw.

"Those places are garbage," Eyrish agrees, sloshing around a can full of beer freezing faster than he was drinking it. Though he is precariously housed now, Eyrish says he spent the night of Jan. 4 at the All Saints Church drop-in centre on Dundas Street East.

"It's chaos in there, man," Eyrish said. "I froze last night, and my phone got stolen."

A visit to the All Saints drop-in centre is illuminating. Around midday on Jan. 5, dozens of people were huddled under blankets on mats on the floor. Although it was warmer than the -18 C it was outside, the old church was still chilly inside. The smell of urine hung in the air.

"Oh, honey, your feet!" one woman said to another woman wandering listlessly towards the bathroom. "You have nothing on your feet!" The woman appeared not to hear her. Near the door, a young man was yelling incoherently.

The drop-in at All Saints Church is run by Margaret's Housing and Community Support Services. It took in upward of 100 people a night between the site's two spaces during the cold snap. Inside the church, there are three toilets and only one sink. The washroom has no door.

Margaret's executive director, Diane Walter, acknowledged the cold-weather crowding situation isn't ideal, but says staff do the best job they can.

"We have not had an incident of extreme violence where blood was shed or anything like that," she said. "We've had skirmishes."

Matt Buckaway has been homeless for about the past five years. He knows a lot of the other homeless youth in the downtown core. He has chosen to squat in a house slated for demolition with no heat, power, or running water instead of going to a shelter.

During this month's cold snap, Ms. Walter said some of her organization's clients were holed up at the drop-in around the clock for 13 days straight. In such conditions, it's natural for nerves to get frayed, she said. Police had to be called twice.

The drop-in at All Saints faced some of the worst overcrowding during the recent cold snap in part because of its location at the corner of busy Dundas and Sherbourne Streets, which Ms. Walter called the "epicentre" of the shelter crisis.

"It may not look like the Ritz, it may not smell like the Ritz or feel like the Ritz, but for some people it is the Ritz," she said. "I don't think it's optimal, obviously, but it serves a purpose and it saves lives."

While the drop-ins and warming centres can be rough, some say the conditions inside the city's permanent shelters are often as bad or worse.

"The shelters, they're very dangerous," said one shelter user who asked to remain anonymous and sleeps at the Salvation Army's Maxwell Meighen Centre shelter for men. "I got my nose broken, my eyes blackened. I was in the hospital three times. Once, I got stabbed."

During one incident two weeks ago, he said, another shelter client interrupted a card game. When things got heated, the other client started spitting in his face, he said. They got into a fight, and the police had to be called.

Salvation Army spokesperson John McAlister said a "disagreement" between two clients fitting that description did occur at the Maxwell Meighen shelter recently. Without disclosing the frequency of incidents, he said staff at the shelter are trained in non-violent crisis intervention and only call the police when situations escalate.

The public discourse this winter has mainly focused on the number of beds available, but those who use the shelter system say the real problem is the quality of the accommodations.

City Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam said she can understand why, even in record-breaking cold, some people would still choose to sleep outdoors.

"We have to tackle this in a holistic manner by defusing the volatile situation in the shelters," and adding at least 1,000 new shelter spaces by the end of the year, Ms. Wong-Tam said.

"We probably need more than that by my count, but I think we should be able to … at least get those 1,000 shelter beds open before the next winter hits."

Last week, the city made a small dent in that number. The Salvation Army's New Hope men's shelter opened in the eastern part of downtown Toronto, adding 60 new spaces to the city's 5,861 total.

Toronto housing and shelter spokesperson Patricia Anderson said nightly shelter demand has increased by 30 per cent over the past year. The city plans to open a total of 690 new spaces by the end of 2018. Three new shelters will be built next year, and three more added to the 2019 plan, Ms. Anderson said.

Back on the street, as Jan. 5 slowly became Jan. 6, Mr. Buckaway made one last stop to visit friends under the busy Gardiner Expressway. There, with his tent pressed up against a concrete pillar, was Jordan. He's been on the streets for 20 years, he said, and – like his friends – prefers his tent to a shelter or drop-in because he feels safer.

"Plus, I can't make eggs at a drop-in," Jordan said with a grin, pointing to a full carton and a single-burner propane camp stove.

Mr. Buckaway's night ends in the basement of an empty house he's squatting in. It's in a row of others downtown, all slated for eventual demolition to make way for a condo development. There is no heat, power or running water, but Mr. Buckaway doesn't mind.

Inside the basement, it feels warmer than the All Saints drop-in, and is definitely warmer than the -23 C outside.

"With a few candles and a good sleeping bag, it's not too bad," Mr. Buckaway said, before turning in for the night.