Haircuts4Homeless is celebrating five years of hairdressers rebuilding the resilience, confidence and self-worth of people on the streets
Stewart Roberts is a hairdresser from Essex and knows only too well the issues facing people dealing with homelessness coupled with substance abuse. ‘I’m 13 years sober and have been volunteering with alcoholics and drug addicts for the last ten years,’ he says. ‘I used to attend a weekly support group at my local Salvation Army in Romford.’
After seeing a video on social media of a man giving haircuts to people living on the streets of New York, Roberts decided to take his own scissors to his support centre, the Salvation Army and do the same for whoever was waiting for a meal. The response was incredible.
He offered to cut hair in other centres and shelters and took hairdresser friends who wanted to help along with him. Then in 2014 Roberts launched Haircuts4Homeless, now a registered charity and one you can find on Virgin Giving (which means anyone can raise money for them through sponsorship). ‘The industry is known for its willingness to help people, so I knew that many hairdressers would be happy to give their time and expertise.’
The H4H community has now grown to 600 skilled volunteers working in 63 UK locations. ‘The more places we visit the more I’m overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem. I feel suffocated sometimes because homelessness is growing more and more, year on year. I have to remember that I can only do so much and what I do is still better than just walking past,’ he says. To date Haircuts4Homeless has issued over 40,000 free haircuts to rough sleepers all around the country.
Being homeless can have a devastating effect on a person’s self-esteem and, with daily challenges to navigate and financial worries, having a haircut is a luxury that is out of reach of many, which is where Haircuts4Homeless offer a much-needed boost. ‘We’re about giving these people respect and to show someone cares because they don’t get a lot of that. Some people just come in for a big hug.’
‘What we’re giving means so much more than a haircut,’ says Roberts. ‘You see it in my clients’ facial expression changing from when they walk in to when they leave. Their body language is lifted. When you hold the mirror up to their face the reflection takes their breath away, sometimes bringing us both to tears,’ he says.
‘There’s a lot of trust and intimacy involved in a haircut,’ says Roberts. ‘We break down the communication barrier and move into their personal space,’ he says. ‘Clients don’t trust us initially, so we have to build it up gradually. But once they realise there’s no hidden agenda, they realise we are only there to make them feel better.’
Roberts realised that many of the homeless feel invisible and that no one is listening so he’s also setting up a podcast called Hear Me. ‘I’ll be talking to the clients, which is going to be a challenge, but it will ultimately give them the chance to have a voice. I hope it will also dispel some of the stereotypes.’ His other big project is setting up an academy to retrain interested clients as hairdressers. ‘Lori is our first hairdresser through – who was once homeless and now has a qualification.’
Haircuts4Homeless have also teamed up with The Samaritans to give cards to those who the volunteers believe are vulnerable, so they have someone they can reach out to. ‘It’s also for the team so they can then leave the centre without having to worry,’ explains Roberts. ‘I struggle at times but I have support, family and friends that I can rely on. When everything goes wrong for me my work helps. I do a session and realise how lucky I am.’
Roberts knows his initiative won’t lower the number of people sleeping rough on the streets but he’s going a long way to changing people’s attitudes towards them. And more importantly Roberts and his army of hairdressers are giving back dignity and self-esteem to the people who need it most.
*Donate to @Haircuts4Homeless: bit.ly/H4HDonations