News / City Life

This Londoner travels the world cutting homeless people’s hair

Joshua Coombes, #dosomethingfornothing
Photograph: Andy Parsons

Hairdresser Joshua Coombes started cutting homeless people’s hair to help them get back their dignity. Now he’s turning his efforts into a social movement…

‘I moved to London three years ago and I was immediately struck by the level of homelessness here. Homeless people in London are often painted as grey stats rather than actual human beings. It makes it hard to know how to help.

I was working at Willie Smarts hairdressers in Crystal Palace and got to know a homeless guy called Darak just across the street. He was my age. I thought to myself: I’m not too far away from being in the same predicament. Talking to him was the most real moment of my week. We really connected and I wanted to find a way to help him. One day I had my clippers on me and I asked him if he wanted me to cut his hair. Fortunately, he said yes. That moment changed my life.

On Sundays, I would meet different homeless people and get to know them. I would take time off work just to do it. I became addicted to it. I didn’t know where my rent was coming from but I followed my instincts. Eventually, I started posting stories about each of the people I met on social media under the hashtag #DoSomethingForNothing. It’s developed into a social movement, a way for other Londoners to help their homeless neighbours.

I’ve met Jade, who is a vet – she comes with me to help treat homeless pets – and Chris, who plays the guitar. I’ve gone to Los Angeles and Paris, paying my own way, to do the same thing there. National Geographic even made a documentary about what we do: I was cutting a homeless guy called Stuart’s hair on camera and Morgan Freeman came along.

That kind of attention is cool, but this isn’t a camera opportunity: I truly try to turn the likes I get on Instagram into something positive for the people I work with. I stick with these people and they become my friends. I want to disrupt what a charity looks like, and make it a lot more real and conversational.

One guy called Gavin, who I met in Brixton, had just got out of prison. While I was doing his hair, he told me about his mum, who he hadn’t seen in years. I asked him what would happen if he knocked on her door. A few months later, he called me up and said he was now living back with her and looking for work. In LA, I met this Mexican guy who was an ex-boxer. He had so many walls up and kept aggressively asking me: “Why are you showing me so much love?” I think he thought I had a hidden agenda. But my cutting his hair transitioned into meeting him the next day and us walking over to his old boxing gym. The guys there recognised him and agreed to help him out. That’s what I do this for.

The people whose hair I cut say it’s a chance for them to look at themselves in the mirror. People are finally listening to them: it’s empowering. It allows them to see themselves in another life. Others say it gives them back their dignity. I think that when you have nothing but bad memories stacking up, having just one good one can make a world of difference.

In London, people develop tunnel vision and walk around with their head down. I guess I want #DoSomethingForNothing to wake people up out of that slumber, so they recognise that just taking a few minutes to talk to someone who is homeless can change everything. Over the past three years, I’ve honestly learned more about myself through these people than anything in my previous 28 years.

It’s given me a purpose and made me feel part of a community. I am not a saviour: I’m just someone who wants to learn how to listen.’

The #DoSomethingForNothing art exhibition ‘Light & Noise’ is at Arcola Street Studio on Fri Oct 26 and Pop Brixton on Nov 1.

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