From behind the counter, TikToker films raw look at homelessness in Ottawa
CBC Creator Network piece sees Rideau Street through the eyes of a convenience store clerk
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While most of Ottawa sleeps, Ziggy Haile begins his overnight shift behind the cash register at 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.
Though some may criticize his efforts, he said he is well placed to tell these stories because he's been "in the struggle" himself.
"When I see people on the street, I understand what they're going through. I've been homeless before. I've been holding on by a string before," said Haile, who uses the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) and recently stayed in a shelter when he couldn't afford to rent a room in Ottawa.
For Haile, his channel has become about telling a larger audience about the unfiltered reality of being homeless, so it can no longer be ignored.
"I do this because I've seen people walk over people as they are overdosing. I've seen some dark things, but I believe that the only way you get out of your struggle is by helping others," said Haile, who began offering food and other forms of help.
Haile began his journey on TikTok by filming his own reaction to difficult customers.
But after a video of a customer throwing hot coffee on him raked in 1.4 million views, he realized he had an opportunity to turn his channel into a platform to advocate for those he meets.
He began filming his conversations with regulars, many of whom are homeless or struggling with addiction.
Viral behind the counter
Since going viral, Haile has received donations from viewers across the globe. People also stop by the convenience store to drop off basic necessities for those in the videos.
But as his channel grows, Haile's work has also caught the attention of critics, some of whom argue these videos exploit vulnerable people.
Those who work with people without homes say, though there are concerns about his filming, he is shedding light on a difficult experience.
"We appreciate the intent of Ziggy's work to try to raise awareness about homelessness, especially as it is a stigmatized condition that needs public understanding," said Aileen Leo, spokesperson for The Ottawa Mission shelter, though the shelter's practice is to ensure 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 way that is respectful and empathetic to their current experience. We encourage anyone who posts about people experiencing homelessness on social media to do the same," said Deirdre Freiheit from the Shepherds of Good Hope shelter.
Haile said the people he films are aware he is telling their stories, even if there is no paperwork. By spotlighting these struggles, he argues he's been able to make a real difference in his customers' lives.
"We've seen people get clean, go to rehab and get off the streets since I started filming these videos."
In 1991, Haile's family fled Tigray, a region in Ethiopia, arriving as refugees to Canada and eventually landing in St. Catharines, Ont., where adjusting was tough.
"When we first came to 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 basketball and had dreams of going to university on a sports scholarship. That all changed when he heard a pop in his knee, which left him permanently disabled. He now lives with chronic pain.
"My whole identity was sports, and when I hurt my leg I felt like I disappointed my family. I wasn't able to use my body, and I became depressed. I lost a part of me."
Haile says he felt rudderless and became involved in the drug scene.
"I made a mistake. I made a horrible decision. I sold weed and I got arrested. Then there was about six or seven years of hell," he recalled, before he decided to forge a new path in Ottawa.
But he said it hasn't been easy. It took a long time to find his current job. He's also faced hurdles with ODSP, and said he recently "went totally broke" and had to borrow money to pay rent.
His experiences have made one thing clear: "I learned we are all one accident away from being in a difficult situation."
Despite the challenges, Haile said he's committed to creating good karma for himself and especially for his grandmother. She is still in Tigray, where there has been civil war since 2020.
"I can't do anything for my grandmother, but I can do something for these people in front of me," said Haile.
When he isn't working at Zesty's, Haile continues to help his regulars, doing everything from sitting with them in hospital as they detox, to making calls to get people into rehab, to organizing free clothing drives.
At night he often walks Rideau Street to check on people who are sleeping on the sidewalk — making sure they haven't overdosed.
"During my time at Zesty's I've seen a lot of destruction. But I've noticed with simple little conversations and jokes. We're able to have a conversation and realize we're in it together," he said.