A Social Media Influencer Learns a Hard Lesson About Money and Politics
Ya Fav Trashman wants to clean up Philadelphia. But even with an army of Instagram followers who volunteer to help, his personal war on illegal trash dumping hasn't been easy.
Terrill Haigler, a former sanitation worker, is more commonly known as “Ya Fav Trashman” to the residents of Philadelphia and his 33,000 worldwide Instagram followers. Having left his job with the sanitation department more than two years ago, Haigler is still working to clean up his city, leading an army of volunteers recruited on social media.
At his home on an early afternoon in April, he is neatly outfitted in blue jeans, black hoodie, bright yellow cap and matching yellow frame glasses. The only item of note within the whitewashed walls of his second-floor apartment is a simple award, fashioned from a wooden plank, proclaiming him a 2022 Activist of the Year.
Haigler is planning to clean up a vacant lot this afternoon near Temple University, about six miles away. But first, he will need to get the word out. “What’s good everybody?” he says into his phone’s camera. “Ya Fav Trashman here … Today, 4 p.m., please, if you are available … Clean up with your Fav Trashman on this beautiful day in Philadelphia.” Satisfied with the result, he posts the video to Instagram and Twitter.
Fame and Misfortune
Terrill Haigler’s career with the Philadelphia sanitation department began just before New Year's Day 2020. “My starting salary was $30,000,” he says. “I was walking 12 miles a day, picking up bags. Some of them had to be about 75 pounds. House after house after house.” Three months into his new job, the pandemic hit.
Sensing a lack of communication between the department and city residents, Haigler started posting to Instagram in June of 2020, trying to raise awareness of the sanitation workers' plight and to ask for understanding when trash wasn’t picked up on time. The “Ya Fav Trashman” moniker was bestowed by an appreciative elderly customer.
The newly minted social media star soon realized he could use his accounts to raise money as well as awareness. He raised $40,000 from his followers, selling T-shirts, using the funds to purchase PPE and cleaning supplies for his sanitation colleagues. His efforts didn’t go unnoticed. Ya Fav Trashman was suddenly in demand, making appearances on The Kelly Clarkson Show, Good Morning America, the Today Show and ABC World News Tonight.
In February of 2021, Haigler left his job with the city but continued his efforts to clean up with the help of volunteers and corporate sponsors, sometimes in partnership with the sanitation department. “Every time you turned around, I was on the news,” he says. “I was organizing cleanups. I was picking up 10 tons of trash at a time, having 200 volunteers show up. I really put an emphasis on the importance of having Philadelphia be clean.”
The local media showed up at Haigler’s boyhood home last September when he announced his intention to run. “I was on the campaign trail from September to December,” he says. “I was at events. I was speaking. [I] started switching the Instagram around a little bit, making it a little bit more political. Fundraising, talking to voters, knocking on doors, the whole political thing.”
A manager was brought on board in January and a second staffer was hired soon after, ostensibly to bring a degree of political professionalism to the campaign. “They wanted me to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Haigler says. “And I felt because of my brand, I didn't have to. Everybody knows who I am in this city. … I thought I was raising money to support myself and to buy literature and to pay for events.”
By early March, Ya Fav Trashman had fallen short of the required number of signatures to get on the ballot and officially withdrew from the race. Out of money, the campaign could not pay his two remaining staffers who promptly told their story to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
When it became known that Haigler had used most of his campaign funds for living expenses, repercussions quickly followed. He was asked to step down from four of the five boards he served on. A grant for $100,000 was rescinded. “I take responsibility for not knowing all the rules, and not knowing how everything works,” Haigler says. “But what I don't take responsibility for is how they're trying to paint my character and paint my intentions.”
Ya Fav Trashman has not ruled out another run for office. But he is concerned about a playing field that favors those who can afford not to work. “I’m just a working-class person from the community,” he says. “If you gotta give your undivided attention and be available 24/7, how is everybody else supporting their lifestyle? You literally disenfranchise a whole class of people because they can’t afford to run.”
The Cleanup Continues
A few minutes past four o’clock, Haigler is the first to arrive at the cleanup site and is surprised to find much more garbage and debris than he had anticipated. Trash, old mattresses and construction debris are strewn across the narrow lot. In the middle of it all, a dumpster overflows with broken drywall, pieces of furniture and bags of garbage. A dead rat is flattened against the curb.
A pair of Temple students appear from behind the 10-foot fence that separates their backyard from the mess. They tell Haigler that the doors and drywall began to appear when a renovation project started across the street, followed soon after by more bags of household garbage. “When we first moved in, I could bring my dog here,” one of the students says. ““It’s getting worse and worse. The rats are horrible.”
By the time a few more volunteers arrive, Haigler has already concluded that this pile of trash is more than they can handle today. “This is a lot more than I anticipated,” Haigler tells the group. “We’re going to need gloves, shovels and a truck. I might have an exterminator come out here first.” The dumpster can’t be moved until its owner is identified. Even then, a path through the trash will have to be cleared first.
Plans are soon made to return later in the month, with more people and the right equipment. One of the Temple students volunteers to make flyers advertising the event. The mom promises to recruit people from her running group, or maybe get some kids from the school where she teaches.
Haigler picks his way through the piles of trash, looking for the perfect background as he records one more video plea for help. “Ya Fav Trashman here. … Boy oh boy, did I underestimate this mess. So … I’m coming back April 22nd. We’re going to do an Earth Day cleanup for this whole entire pile. We’ll have a DJ, food truck and hopefully some free beer. … Come on out and help us clean up this pile.”