How Joshua Coombes became hairdresser to the homeless and example to us all

One evening in spring 2015, Joshua Coombes did something that changed his life for ever. He was walking to a friend’s house after finishing work at a hairdressing salon when he stopped to talk to a homeless man he’d seen many times in the same spot. In the past, he had bought the man something to eat or given him some spare change, but this time a thought occurred to Coombes: how about I offer him a haircut? He had his gear in his backpack and he cut the man’s hair right there on the street. As he worked, the pair of them fell into the chatty intimacies of barber and client, opening up to each other. The next time they met, the man introduced Coombes to a couple of his friends and he got his clippers and scissors out for them too.

Soon, he says, he was out on the streets of London as often as he could be, enjoying the chance to change often desperate lives in a small, surprising way. “A haircut is not the first thing on your list of things you’ve thought you were going to do that day, if you’re sat there on the street,” he told me when we met for a coffee near his home in Peckham, south London, last week. “You’re thinking of where you’re getting your next meal or where you might be staying that night. So me walking up and offering a haircut was unexpected and most of the time people were really receptive. And if they’re not, that’s totally fine too. I’ll just have a chat with someone and see where that goes.”

Coombes, who grew up in Exeter, is now 34. About a year after that first spring evening, he gave up his job at the salon and devoted himself to his new vocation full time. He had started taking before-and-after pictures of his homeless “clients” and posting them along with the stories he heard about their lives on his Instagram account – he had seen how those stories had struck a chord with people and “stopped them scrolling for 10 minutes”. He came up with a hashtag #DoSomethingForNothing, which prompted some readers of his posts to think what they could do; one friend, for example, a vet, started to go out and offer to treat the dogs of people on the street; others posted stories of being inspired to make meals for those who needed them, offer free yoga lessons or just to make time to stop and listen. The publicity that Coombes received led to invitations to talk about his initiative in schools and to corporations; he has a bright-eyed, quietly charismatic presence (he was a guitarist in various bands that didn’t quite make it before he became a hairdresser) and he now funds his work from the speaking fees he gets and from art exhibitions he organises. During lockdown, he took the enforced time-out to put the stories of many of the people whose hair he had cut – in Britain and on subsequent trips in India and across the US – into a book to raise awareness further (his royalties go to charity).

You can’t read the stories in that book, or even look at the pictures, without understanding the simple humanity in Coombes’s gesture. When he gives his talks, he says, some audiences might have quite fixed ideas about homelessness. He tries to start with “things we can all agree on”. One is: “We don’t want to live in cities and towns where people are dying on the street.” He points to the research done last year that indicated that nearly 1,000 people in the UK died without a roof over their head in 2020, only 3% of them with Covid, and a third more than the previous year. The fallout from the pandemic, the end of the “non-eviction” emergency housing policy, will only inflate those horrific numbers this winter. “We’ve been led to believe that this is just part of life in our towns and cities, but it doesn’t have to be,” Coombes says. Though he argues that government should find the money to change the situation (“just look at what they have spent in the past year”) the message of his initiative is that money alone is not enough.

“You can provide all the funding you want, but there’s a missing piece of the puzzle, which is the acknowledgment of how important it is to connect with people and treat them in a dignified way,” he says. By detailing the very different stories of the people he has got to know, he confronts stereotypes one buzzcut at a time. “As soon as you call somebody a drug addict, as soon as you call them a waster, it allows you to write them off and say actually, well, they’ve made those bad choices. And then you can walk past them without feeling much in the way of guilt. If we have learned one thing in the last year though it is that we all need someone to talk to. The Hollywood version is sitting on a psychiatrist’s couch and paying $500 an hour. We can’t expect people to help themselves if our only solution is to just chuck them into a tiny, grimy, cell-like room where they’re isolated and sharing a bathroom with 10 people.”

The power of Coombes’s example is that he has been prepared to make himself vulnerable enough to listen properly. I wonder if, to begin with, he had any squeamishness about making his unusual offer?

“Obviously, sometimes people haven’t had access to a shower for a week or been able to wash their clothes,” he says. “I’m not comparing myself with doctors and nurses, but the way I got round it was to think of it like that. We are all ill sometimes, and when we’re ill we’re not looking our best, but we trust the nurse or doctor won’t judge us for that. I try to have the same outlook. And of course I’m very hygienic with what I do, always sanitise all my stuff, especially now with Covid.”

He is at pains to stress that he is not a saintly figure. “I live in London, pay rent, I have a girlfriend, we’re planning to have a kid one of these days soon, I hope, so I need to earn some money as well. I was pretty selfish and hedonistic for quite a long time. But I got to the point where I was like: getting drunk on a Saturday night wasn’t doing it for me. And I realised that there’s another part of me that wanted to be available for people. Not to pat myself on the back, but understanding that when you look out for the most vulnerable in our society, you are actually looking out for yourself.” We are too inclined to think of charity only as a financial transaction, he suggests. He’d like to think there can be “a new idea of what altruism can be at street level”.

The cliche of homelessness is that we are all only a couple of pay cheques away from selling the Big Issue. Coombes doesn’t buy that belief, quite. His book details the precise ways in which each of his homeless friends found themselves where they were. In some cases, there was a tragedy or an accident that triggered the descent – one man, David, had never got over a car crash in which he was speeding and a family member died. More often, they are people who had never had much chance, who had started from the wrong place.

“It’s more palatable in some ways, the falling from grace story of someone like David,” Coombes says. “But there are other stories of people who were abused from a very early age or who were lost in the care system. I grew up on a council estate with my mum and two sisters. We had not much in the way of equity, but I was truly loved. I had my mum who we knew would be there through thick and thin. That’s the difference.”

He has made a point of trying to be a fixed point for the people he connects with, available on the phone, pointing them to where they might find more help. He obviously is not in a position to solve all of their complex issues. How does he cope with that?

“It’s funny,” he says. “We have this terrible way as humans of thinking that because we can’t solve everyone’s problems, we don’t even help the person in front of us. The first couple of years, I used to think, ‘This is all well and good, but, you know, how can I help more people? How can I increase my impact?’ I eventually realised that my energy was better spent getting to know a few people better, telling their stories and letting that ripple out. If you want to set up a big charity and think in terms of numbers and impact that’s fine, but I look at this in a different way. We’re not going to make a dent in this until we actually all start to see other people as human beings… ”

There are plenty of times when he has made a connection only to lose touch with a person; homeless people disappear all the time and for many reasons. A few times, though, enough times, his efforts have lasted well beyond the first short back and sides. He tells the story of Kenny, whose hair he used to cut at Victoria station, but whom he hadn’t seen for a couple of years. Kenny recently called him out of the blue, from Burnley, where he grew up, to tell him how he had repaired some of the relationships with his family, got a job and a place to live. He just wanted to say thank you for the conversations they’d had. “The day after my last haircut,” Kenny said, “I left the station and got on a train back up here. That was the start.”

“I’ve got to be honest with you, Tim,” Coombes says. “That idea, do something for nothing, it’s not true at all. Because it’s not for nothing for me. I get a huge amount out of this too.”

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