Welcome to 'the valley,' one of London's growing communities of last resort
Tents, tarps, nylon rope, driftwood; the people who live here use what they can to make their homes
Salahadin Ali holds an aluminium container filled with hot food in his hands to try to warm them up. They're visibly swollen and tender with frostbite as he clumsily tries to put a pair of gloves on. He winces from the pain.
"I got frostbite four years ago. Every wintertime I get frosty fingers and bleeding feet," he says. "It's killing me."
The 59-year-old has been sleeping on the streets since August when he lost his apartment. He's still not sure how it happened.
"I don't know why. My rent was paid and everything," he said. "They kicked me out."
"I need an apartment, that's all. I need an apartment and a normal life."
Conditions in this homeless encampment at the southern foot of Maitland Street in London's SoHo neighbourhood are far from what most of us would consider normal.
Tents, tarps, nylon rope, driftwood, old billboards, even bike frames; the people who live here use what they can to create their homes with what they have.
There's no electricity, no heat, no running water; though the swampy ground is saturated with it. Wellington Valley Park, or "the valley" as some residents call it, is a flood plain. The soupy muck makes it hard to walk through, let alone stay dry.
At night there are no street lamps. Residents rely on flashlights to see in the dark and spot intruders. Opossums, raccoons and rodents will enter the camp at night and they're not the only thieves.
People also move like shadows, looking to loot what few possessions the homeless have.
"Sorry about the muddy area here," says Aaron Bourget, a 38-year-old former retail manager, who's managed to build a makeshift fence out of skids, branches and signs around his tent to keep intruders out.
He lost everything two years ago when he was arrested for a crime he says he didn't commit.
"I pretty much lost everything. My home, my career, everything I owned."
Bourget has lived in 'the valley' for the last five and a half months. He says since the city lifted its moratorium on clearing homeless encampments at the start of the pandemic, there have been a lot of the newcomers.
"This was my home for a long time and a lot of other people have come down too and I'm trying to help them out as much as possible," he said. "I do patrols around here to make sure everyone is good."
Bourget tries to help because he understands that anyone can end up homeless, all it takes is a stroke of bad luck.
"I thought I was doing pretty well for myself," he said. "It could happen to anyone."
Pam Norris ended up homeless when her landlord was diagnosed with cancer. The house she was renting was one of the six properties he sold after getting sick.
"It wasn't even on the market for three days and it was sold," she said.
She's been turned into an economic refugee, like many of the people living here, because rising real estate prices and rents shut them out of a market that's becoming unaffordable for anyone without large sums or money or the ability to borrow it.
Even though she lives in a tent, she fiercely guards what she has and rarely leaves the camp unattended. If she does, she's guaranteed to lose anything she doesn't take with her.
"I've had to start over and get my ID done four times," she says, adding that other homeless people will rifle through anything left unguarded and keep it for themselves.
"Even though we're all homeless, they still break in to everybody's tents."
It's hard to believe something like "the valley" exists in Canada, let alone London, Ont., but as the economic conditions that brought these people here continue to play out, the community will likely continue to grow despite the millions being spent by governments to try to fix the problem.
Like all displaced people, the residents live with a sense of impermanence, bracing for the next moment the authorities will eventually clear them out.
Many here say they're already on borrowed time and that city officials plan to have them moved by next month.
The only question is, where will they go?