With record-breaking frigid temperatures gripping Toronto, the manager of a non-profit community based agency believes it will take more than people freezing to death for city officials to fix the problem of homelessness once and for all.

Even as Environment Canada issued an extreme cold warning for Toronto on Thursday and temperatures dropped to -23 C early Friday, breaking the decades-old record low of -20.6 set in 1959, Joyce Rankin, a manager at the Street Health Community Nursing Foundation clinic, told CBC Toronto the political will to address homelessness is lacking.

"What is it going take? I mean, we have people who have frozen to death in the cold. None of us want that to happen; that's what we're trying to avoid," Rankin said.

"What it's going to take is political will to make things happen. And it's not just at the city level; this is political will at all three levels of government to actually create meaningful change."

The Street Health Community Nursing Foundation clinic seeks to improve the health and well-being of homeless and under-housed people in downtown Toronto.

Rankin is adamant that money is not an issue, pointing out that Toronto, the fourth largest city in North America, has the financial wherewithal to better care for its homeless residents.

She sums up the state of homeless in Toronto as "terrible" and "shameful," noting that recent steps to address the issue have only just brushed the surface.

moss park armoury

Some members of Toronto's homeless community bedding down at Moss Park Armoury on January 14, 1999, during an infamously snowy winter that saw temperatures dipping down to as low as -24 C. (Canadian Press)

"I think it's terrible ... I think it's actually shameful that in a city and a country as wealthy as ours that we are still relying on the volunteer sector to actually do the work of the city," Rankin said.

"By that I mean reliance on the out-of-the-cold shelters. This is something that was started 28 years ago ... and it's basically still happening, and I know that for a fact because I run an out-of-the-cold," she said.

"We should actually be providing shelter and housing, not just reliance on the volunteer community to feed and shelter people for one night a week. It's like a massive migration that happens every night in the winter."

Sleeping outside

A homeless person hunkers down in the bitter cold on Toronto's streets. (Muriel Draaisma/CBC)

On Wednesday, Mayor John Tory said he had asked the province to request that the federal government convert the Moss Park armoury into a 24/7 winter respite centre until mid-April, while also announcing the city is adding more cots at the Better Living Centre and other facilities.  

By Friday Ralph Goodale, the minister of public safety and emergency preparedness, announced that the federal government had accepted the city's request to temporarily make the Moss Park Armoury a winter respite centre, providing up to 100 new spaces for the city's homeless.

But Rankin says these steps don't go far enough.

"I think the opening up of the Moss Park armoury is a start but it is just that. I think that at a minimum we have to get Fort York armoury up and going and up and going quickly," she said.

"We're having a significant cold snap and my concern is that it seems like the mayor feels like we weren't going to have winter this year.

Cold weather

Toronto is in the midst of a bitter cold snap this weekend. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"A lot of frontline staff have been advocating and advocating for services to be available long before this cold snap has happened, but yet there really has been precious little done and I think for that they should be ashamed of themselves," Rankin added.

Michael Braithwaite, the CEO of Raising the Roof, a national charity dedicated to long-term solutions to homelessness, believes the best way to address the problem is to prevent it from happening in the first place.

"When you talk about ending homelessness, if we don't stop the influx of new people entering into homelessness it can't be done," Braithwaite told CBC Toronto.

"For the longest time as Canadians what we've been focused on is reacting to homelessness. We have to work upstream and really kind of go back and see, 'Can we prevent families from breaking down and people from exiting out of systems into homelessness?"'

'Homelessness doesn't end'

Rankin agrees that a more proactive approach to the issue is needed if there is going to be long-term, meaningful change.

"Homelessness doesn't end. Homelessness does not end in April when you have the cold stop but I think that's the message that the city seems to have ... that somehow we have to find shelters only in the cold months," she said.

"But that's actually not true. People die of health exposure, people who have lung problems can't breathe properly in the heat. So the issue is year-round and it seems like it is always reactionary versus being proactive and I think that's a major concern," Rankin added.