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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.

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Terrill Haigler is on a mission to clean up Philadelphia. (Photographs by David Kidd)
In Brief:
  • An enterprising sanitation worker achieves celebrity status in Philly.
  • Lack of political experience dooms a campaign for city council.
  • The failed candidate is undeterred in his war against trash and illegal dumping.

  • 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.

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    Haigler alerts his Instgram followers to a cleanup taking place that afternoon.

    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.

    With everyone suddenly staying inside, there was a significant increase in the amount of household trash. Trucks would fill up quickly, leaving garbage to pile up as collections fell behind schedule. Inevitably, COVID-19 swept through the department, keeping 25 percent of the workforce off the job. “People were cussing at us,” Haigler says. “I had a gun pulled on me.” 

    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.” 
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    Illegal dumping is a pervasive problem in Philadelphia.
    “There's been an intentional disinvestment in Philadelphia's brown and Black neighborhoods when it comes to illegal dumping and litter,” Haigler says. “So I thought that should be my focus. I found the thing that I've been waiting my whole entire life to advocate for.” Running for a seat on the Philadelphia City Council seemed the obvious next step for the former sanitation worker turned social media influencer.

     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.”
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    When he arrives for the afternoon cleanup, Haigler is confronted with more trash than he anticipated.
    The failed candidate insists he will make good on the $14,000 he owes to his former staff. “I'm going to address it head on,” Haigler says. “Do what I'm supposed to do. Make it right.” He recently signed up with Uber and Lyft to augment his lessened influencer income.

    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.”
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    Haigler assures two student neighbors that he will be back to clean up the lot next to their house.
    A woman pulls up with her two teenagers in tow. This is not the first time they have come out for a cleanup. “It feels like the least we can do,” she says. “I live in a neighborhood where the services are pretty good. We don’t have lots like this in my neighborhood. And so it feels like a contribution I can make, just a little bit of giving back. And it’s fun. Terrill’s fun.” One of the teens, interested in politics, had been following Ya Fav Trashman’s campaign for council on Instagram.

    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.”
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    One of the students helps Haigler record a video about the rescheduled cleanup.
    David Kidd is a photojournalist and storyteller for Governing. He can be reached at
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