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In D.C., barbers give homeless men makeovers

Deon Robinson gets a free haircut Saturday from hairstylist-to-be Odell Gaymon, left, under the supervision of instructor Lorenzo McCrea, right, at a homeless shelter in Washington. (Astrid Riecken/Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

Deon Robinson has been without a haircut for more than a month. He’s been without a home since last summer.

On Saturday, he walked through the doors of the Central Union Mission, which had volunteer barbers and counselors prepared to help provide both.

The men’s homeless shelter on Massachusetts Avenue NW, not far from Union Station, was offering a free makeover for people already enrolled in its programs and for people who walked through the door with little more than a backpack or a shopping bag. “New Year, New You!” the welcome sign said.

Clippers hummed and music played as student barbers from the Bennett Career Institute, more than a dozen of them at eight stations, volunteered their time in exchange for more experience with shears and clippers.

“It gives the students the opportunity to practice, but it also teaches them about community service,” said Lorenzo McCrea, an instructor at the school who also ministers at the Mount Moriah Baptist Church on East Capitol Street NE when he’s not showing students how to guide electric clippers around someone’s head without taking off more than hair.

“I’m grateful for the people who think of us — who come here to do this for us,” Croswell Reid said. Reid, 65, said he became homeless about a year ago after a knee injury cost him a construction job.

Joe Paul, the event’s organizer, said the shelter teamed with two city agencies — the Department of Human Services and the Department of Employment Services — to assess participants’ needs and point them in the direction of the appropriate services. The theme Saturday was building self-confidence: looking good makes a person feel good, too, Paul said.

“I wanted to give these men a makeover today — make them feel like a king,” Paul said.

More than 7,400 people in the District, or about 1.1 percent of the population, were reported homeless last year, according to a report by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. Although the number of D.C. homeless shrank, the rising cost of housing continued to put pressure on vulnerable people.

Central Union Mission offers 178 beds, but only if the men who go there agree to abide by strict rules, said Alex Forrest, 64, the front desk supervisor. Forrest — who tells a man to remove his hat indoors as he talks — said he was homeless and addicted to alcohol until the shelter helped him regain control of his life. The idea of giving a cosmetic makeover came about as a way of trying to make some of the shelter residents more comfortable about heading out into the world to find work.

“How are you expected to go out and find a job if you’re [not well groomed]?” Forrest said.

Robinson, 32, was one of a handful of walk-ins Saturday morning.

He said he wound up on the streets last July after quarreling with a friend who had been putting him up. Until he lost his place to stay, he said, he had been working for a catering company. Now, he spends most of his time around South Capitol Street, drifting from shelter to shelter. He hadn’t had a haircut for more than a month until he seated himself on a chair in front of Odell Gaymon Jr., who has been training as a barber since August.

Gaymon, 44, of Landover flung a barber’s cape around Robinson and started tightening up Robinson’s fade, trimming around the ears and the forehead.

The very top, though, needed to stay “rugged,” with stray coils popping up here and there, the way Robinson wanted it. So Gaymon got busy with a doohickey that looked like a miniature tennis racket, taking turns spritzing with a fine sheen of coconut oil and grinding its mesh into Robinson’s hair. The tool spun Robinson’s curly hair into tiny dreadlocks.

After a half-hour, Gaymon handed Robinson a mirror. Robinson nodded his freshly shorn head and mouthed a single word: “Yeah.”