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


CBC Ottawa’s Creator Network is a spot the place younger digital storytellers from numerous backgrounds can produce authentic video content material to air on CBC and inform tales by means of their very own lens. Get in contact to pitch your concept, or try our different Creator Netork tales at

While most of Ottawa sleeps, Ziggy Haile begins his in a single day shift behind the money register at a comfort retailer at the nook of Dalhousie and Rideau streets, the place a few of Ottawa’s most weak individuals congregate.

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

Though some might criticize his efforts, he mentioned he’s effectively positioned to inform these tales as a result of he is been “in the wrestle” himself.

“When I see individuals on the road, I perceive what they are going by means of. I’ve been homeless earlier than. I’ve been holding on by a string earlier than,” mentioned Haile, who makes use of the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) and not too long ago stayed in a shelter when he could not afford to lease a room in Ottawa. 

Haile didn’t got down to be a TikToker. He started documenting his expertise working the late shift at a nook retailer on Rideau Street, after which his TikTok account went viral (he now has greater than 100,000 followers). (James Park, Ziggy Haile)

For Haile, his channel has develop into about telling a bigger viewers about the unfiltered actuality of being homeless, so it could possibly now not be ignored.

“I do that as a result of I’ve seen individuals stroll over individuals as they’re overdosing. I’ve seen some darkish issues, however I imagine that the solely method you get out of your wrestle is by serving to others,” mentioned Haile, who started providing meals and different types of assist. 

Haile started his journey on TikTok by filming his personal response to tough clients. 

But after a video of a buyer throwing sizzling espresso on him raked in 1.4 million views, he realized he had a chance to show his channel right into a platform to advocate for these he meets. 

He started filming his conversations with regulars, a lot of whom are homeless or combating dependancy. 

‘Sometimes you are in your individual ache and pit and you do not see different individuals’s ache. Then you notice we’re all in the wrestle collectively,’ defined Haile. (CBC)

Viral behind the counter

Since going viral, Haile has acquired donations from viewers throughout the globe. People additionally cease by the comfort retailer to drop off primary requirements for these in the movies.

But as his channel grows, Haile’s work has additionally caught the consideration of critics, a few of whom argue these movies exploit weak individuals.

Those who work with individuals with out properties say, although there are issues about his filming, he is shedding gentle on a tough expertise.

“We respect the intent of Ziggy’s work to attempt to elevate consciousness about homelessness, particularly as it’s a stigmatized situation that wants public understanding,” mentioned Aileen Leo, spokesperson for The Ottawa Mission shelter, although the shelter’s observe is to make sure the individuals whose tales they inform sign a consent kind.

“When we share tales and pictures of people that have come to Shepherds, we at all times search their consent in a method that’s respectful and empathetic to their present expertise. We encourage anybody who posts about individuals experiencing homelessness on social media to do the identical,” mentioned Deirdre Freiheit from the Shepherds of Good Hope shelter.

‘I keep in mind the day I injured my leg, I felt like my entire identification was sports activities. When I damage my leg I felt like I damage my entire household,’ mentioned Haile, who lives with persistent ache from an damage on the court docket as a teen. (James Park, Ziggy Haile)

Haile mentioned the individuals he films are conscious he’s telling their tales, even when there is no such thing as a paperwork. By spotlighting these struggles, he argues he is been capable of make an actual distinction in his clients’ lives.

“We’ve seen individuals get clear, go to rehab and get off the streets since I began filming these movies.” 

Haile’s wrestle

In 1991, Haile’s household fled Tigray, a area in Ethiopia, arriving as refugees to Canada and finally touchdown in St. Catharines, Ont., the place adjusting was robust.

“When we first got here to Canada, we did not know something. A church volunteer gave us muffins and we ate the wrapper,” Haile laughed. 

As a youth, Haile educated in observe and basketball and had goals of going to college on a sports activities scholarship. That all modified when he heard a pop in his knee, which left him completely disabled. He now lives with persistent ache. 

“My entire identification was sports activities, and after I damage my leg I felt like I dissatisfied my household. I wasn’t in a position to make use of my physique, and I grew to become depressed. I misplaced part of me.”

‘If they do not get into rehab, they’re on the road sleeping exterior. And there are vultures out right here. Drug sellers,’ mentioned Haile, describing what he sees taking place on Rideau Street. (James Park)

Haile says he felt rudderless and have become concerned in the drug scene. 

“I made a mistake. I made a horrible choice. I offered weed and I acquired arrested. Then there was about six or seven years of hell,” he recalled, earlier than he determined to forge a brand new path in Ottawa.

But he mentioned it hasn’t been straightforward. It took a very long time to search out his present job. He’s additionally confronted hurdles with ODSP, and mentioned he not too long ago “went completely broke” and needed to borrow cash to pay lease. 

His experiences have made one factor clear: “I realized we’re all one accident away from being in a tough scenario.” 

Despite the challenges, Haile mentioned he is dedicated to creating good karma for himself and particularly for his grandmother. She continues to be in Tigray, the place there was civil struggle since 2020. 

“I can not do something for my grandmother, however I can do one thing for these individuals in entrance of me,” mentioned Haile. 

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

When he is not working at Zesty’s, Haile continues to assist his regulars, doing every little thing from sitting with them in hospital as they detox, to creating calls to get individuals into rehab, to organizing free clothes drives. 

At night time he usually walks Rideau Street to verify on people who find themselves sleeping on the sidewalk — ensuring they have not overdosed.

“During my time at Zesty’s I’ve seen numerous destruction. But I’ve observed with easy little conversations and jokes. We’re capable of have a dialog and notice we’re in it collectively,” he mentioned. 


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here