The Doc Project

This YouTuber documents life on the street, starting with his own

Penny O'Radical is using his YouTube channel to stay clean and to shine a light on homelessness in Hamilton.

Penny O'Radical started making videos as a way to stay clean while experiencing homelessness in Hamilton

A still from the video "Long Term Substance Abuse" where Penny O'Radical detailed some of the unpleasant physical effects he's experienced from his opioid use. (Penny O'Radical/YouTube)

Penny O'Radical holds the camera in front of him and speaks to it "vlog-style" as he makes his way down a graffiti-covered alleyway in downtown Hamilton. 

"I've just been thinking about how much has changed in the last year since I was homeless. One of the big reasons that a lot has changed for me has been you guys."

He's talking to his audience of YouTube subscribers in one of the weekly videos he produces. It's for a series he started making in 2019 to candidly document his recovery from a years-long opioid addiction that took him all the way to rock bottom. 

Penny O'Radical is not his real name, but rather his preferred moniker as a homeless advocate as well as the creative persona of his YouTube channel

During the lowest point of those years, he was living on the streets and largely dependent on Hamilton's shelter system for his basic needs. But after being released from a stint in jail in the summer of 2019, O'Radical, 38, decided to use one of his last remaining possessions, an old Samsung smartphone with a broken screen, to recount his situation to the camera. The video he uploaded to YouTube was called "Homeless Again."

A still from one of Penny O'Radical's first videos, Homeless Again, shot on his cell phone shortly after his release from jail in August of 2019. (Penny O'Radical/YouTube)

"One of the few good things about losing everything is that you have nothing left to lose," he told The Doc Project. "There was no boss somewhere who's going to see the video and fire me the next day because I'm a drug addict or something. So being candid like that just felt good,like it was creative. It was almost like it felt healthy." 

So began a new routine for O'Radical: making weekly videos documenting everything from his trips to the local methadone clinic and the harsh realities of opioid withdrawal to the pitfalls of cheque-cashing outlets for people living on low incomes.

"I think one of the reasons why I started reporting on what was going on around me is because people who use drugs, or homeless people, one of their main issues is that they aren't articulate. They can't communicate their problem as well as I can," he said. 

"It's something I have that I can use."

Using a free video editing app on his phone and WiFi from Hamilton Public Library, O'Radical would upload his videos each week to his YouTube channel. He spent hours answering questions and comments from curious viewers and slowly growing his audience to nearly a thousand subscribers.

Penny O'Radical speaks with a man in front of Gore Park, in downtown Hamilton, as he gathers footage for an upcoming YouTube video. (Evan Aagaard/CBC)

It's given him a sense of purpose while also keeping him accountable to himself as he builds his life back from homelessness and addiction.

"I had the motivation to do something because I was clean," he said. "I started to see things around me that I thought would be interesting to capture and that I thought maybe other people might be interested to see, like just how life sort of functions on that level."

YouTuber shines light on homelessness and addiction

2 years ago
Duration 3:13
Penny O'Radical is using his YouTube channel to stay clean and to shine a light on homelessness in Hamilton.

O'Radical describes himself as both a filmmaker and a journalist.  His work has a reputation for being reflective and articulate about the homeless experience in Hamilton, while also possessing a cinema verité style in the gritty scenes and interactions he captures.

These are talents that make O'Radical seem like an unlikely candidate to have fallen victim to life as a homeless addict, but that's one of the things he hopes to communicate.   

"Until it has an impact on your own life, it's very hard to sympathize or empathize because you always think there's some difference, there's some reason why they're there and you're not," he said.

The journey to homelessness

For O'Radical, that journey started 20 years ago at Hamilton's Westmount Secondary School where he and his friends would indulge in recreational drugs. Eventually he moved on to harder drugs — cocaine then morphine and fentanyl.   

In the early 00s he toured North America with his band Kitchens and Bathrooms. Devoting himself to music and performance helped him kick his drug habit for a time in his 20s. But when the tours ended, he felt adrift and found himself returning to opioids. 

Eventually in 2017 the financial cost of his drug habit, along with his strained relationships with friends and family, forced him onto the streets for the first time. After wandering downtown Hamilton for days, he found himself searching for a bed at the Salvation Army. 

"It was very eye opening," he said. "The first time I slept at the shelter I was standing in line to get breakfast with a bunch of other homeless men waiting for food, and it was such a slap in the face, like it was such a wake up call. I couldn't believe where my life had ended up during that time." 

Since then, O'Radical has overcome his addiction. He's found a room to rent and a part time job assisting a renovation contractor. It's helped him save enough to upgrade his filmmaking gear. 

After landing part time work in 2020, Penny O'Radical was able to upgrade to a used DSLR camera to improve the look of his YouTube videos. (Evan Aagaard/CBC)

But it's the hours he spends filming and editing his YouTube videos – upwards of 40 hours a week sometimes – that has given him the focus to keep his life on track. He's also started expanding his channel with new content, like his "On The Streets" series, where he interviews other homeless people about their lives and how they came to live on the streets.

It has helped him define a new identity and purpose for himself: interpreting the stories and experiences of the street for those who might otherwise be ignored. 

About the Producer 

Evan Aagaard got his start with the CBC in 2017 as the video producer for CBC Podcasts, where he has produced short documentaries, interviews and social content for award-winning series like Escaping NXIVMHunting Warhead, Alone: A Love Story and many others.

This documentary was edited by Alison Cook. It was made through the CBC Doc Mentorship Program.

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