From behind the counter, TikToker films a raw look at homelessness in Ottawa

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While most of Ottawa is sleeping, Ziggy Haile begins his night shift behind the cash register of a convenience store at the corner of Dalhousie and Rideau streets, where some of Ottawa’s most vulnerable people congregate.

Haile started working as a clerk at Zesty’s in August 2021. After witnessing what he describes as “the good, the bad, the ugly and the permanent ugly”, he began documenting his interactions with customers on his TikTok channel @gangsterapu.

Although some may criticize his efforts, he said he was in a good position to tell these stories because he had been “into the struggle” himself.

“When I see people on the street, I understand what they’re going through. I’ve been homeless before. I’ve held on to a string before,” said Haile, who uses the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). and recently stayed in a shelter when he couldn’t afford a room in Ottawa.

Haile didn’t want to be a TikToker. He started documenting his experience working late at a Rideau Street convenience store, and then his TikTok account went viral (it now has over 100,000 followers). (James Park, Ziggy Haile)

For Haile, her channel has become a way to speak to a wider audience about the unfiltered reality of homelessness, so it can no longer be ignored.

“I’m doing this because I’ve seen people stepping on people while they overdosed. I’ve seen dark things, but I believe the only way out of your struggle is to help others “said Haile, who began offering food and other forms of assistance.

Haile began her TikTok journey by filming her own reaction to difficult customers.

But after a video of a customer throwing hot coffee at him garnered 1.4 million views, he realized he had an opportunity to turn his channel into a platform to advocate for those who ‘he meets.

He began filming his conversations with regulars, many of whom are homeless or struggling with addiction.

“Sometimes you’re in your own pain and your own pit and you don’t see other people’s pain. Then you realize we’re all in the fight together,” Haile explained. (Radio Canada)

Viral behind the counter

Since going viral, Haile has received donations from viewers around the world. People also stop by the convenience store to drop off necessities for those in the videos.

But as her channel has grown, Haile’s work has also drawn the attention of critics, some of whom say the videos exploit vulnerable people.

Those who work with the homeless say that while his filming raises concerns, it highlights a difficult experience.

“We appreciate the intent of Ziggy’s work to try to raise awareness about homelessness, especially since it is a stigmatized condition that needs to be understood by the public,” said Aileen Leo, spokesperson for The Ottawa Mission shelter, although the practice of the shelter is to ensure that the people whose stories they tell sign a consent form.

“When we share stories and images of people who have come to Shepherds, we always seek their consent in a respectful and empathetic way to their current experience. We encourage anyone who posts on social media to homeless people to do the same,” said Deirdre Freiheit of the Good Hope Shepherds shelter.

“I remember the day I injured my leg, I felt like my whole identity was sport. When I hurt my leg, I felt like I hurt my whole family,” said Haile, who suffers from chronic pain following an injury on the pitch as a teenager. (James Park, Ziggy Haile)

Haile said the people he films know he is telling their stories, even if there is no paperwork. By highlighting these struggles, he says he was able to make a real difference in the lives of his clients.

“We’ve seen people clean up, go to rehab and get off the streets since I started filming these videos.”

Haile’s Fight

In 1991, Haile’s family fled Tigray, a region of Ethiopia, and arrived as refugees in Canada, eventually landing in St. Catharines, Ontario, where adjustment was difficult.

“When we arrived in Canada, we didn’t know anything. A church volunteer gave us muffins and we ate the wrapper,” Haile laughed.

As a youth, Haile trained in track and field and basketball and dreamed of going to college on an athletic scholarship. Everything changed when he heard a pop in his knee, which left him permanently disabled. He now lives with chronic pain.

“My whole identity was sporting, and when I injured my leg, I felt like I was disappointing my family. I wasn’t able to use my body and I got depressed. I lost a part of me.”

“If they don’t get into rehab, they’re on the streets sleeping outside.” And there are vultures here. Drug dealers,” Haile said, describing what he sees happening on Rideau Street. (James Park)

Haile says he felt rudderless and got involved in the drug scene.

“I made a mistake. I made a horrible decision. I sold weed and got arrested. Then there were about six or seven years of hell,” he recalls , before deciding to forge a new path in Ottawa.

But he said it hasn’t been easy. It took him a while to find his current job. He has also faced hurdles with ODSP and said he recently “went bankrupt” and had to borrow money to pay his rent.

His experiences made one thing clear: “I learned that we are all one accident away from being in a tough spot.”

Despite the challenges, Haile said he was committed to creating good karma for himself and especially his grandmother. She is still in Tigray, where the civil war has been raging since 2020.

“I can’t do anything for my grandma, but I can do something for these people in front of me,” Haile said.

Behind the scenes with Ottawa videographer James Park and Ziggy Haile. (Ash Abraham/CBC)

When he’s not working at Zesty’s, Haile continues to help out his regulars, doing everything from sitting with them in the hospital during their rehab, to making calls to getting people in for treatment. detox, or organize free clothing drives.

At night, he often wanders down Rideau Street to check on people sleeping on the sidewalk, making sure they haven’t overdosed.

“During my time at Zesty, I saw a lot of destruction. But I noticed with just small talk and jokes. We are able to have a conversation and realize that we are together,” he said. he declares.

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