When Joshua Coombes got off the bus at Union Station in Washington this past February, he didn’t set off for the usual tourist attractions along the Mall. Instead, the London-based hairdresser headed for the marble fountain where homeless people gather outside. Most travelers walk by without a second glance. So what Coombes did next may well have surprised them: He chatted with them, pulled out his scissors and gave them haircuts, free of charge.
Whether in London, New York or Washington, homelessness can seem like a problem too huge and intractable to tackle. But Coombes, 30, realized that he didn’t have to solve all of everyone’s problems to make an impact. Sometimes, a small luxury such as a haircut can go a long way in boosting someone’s dignity, he told The Washington Post.
Two years ago, he founded the campaign #DoSomethingForNothing. His mission: to make a positive impact by giving haircuts to homeless people he meets on city streets, connecting with them on a human level and sharing their stories on social media. So far he has cut the hair of hundreds of homeless people, including a few women.
“When you cut someone’s hair, it is about trust,” Coombes said. It is about trusting the hairdresser, and in his years doing the job, he’s found that “for some mad reason, clients tell us everything. And that role translates to the street really well.”
Outside Union Station, with his mobile hairdressing gear in his backpack — a gown, razor, comb, some clips and scissors — Coombes came upon Thomas, a 70-year-old Vietnam veteran who has been homeless for 10 years. “I could never have seen it,” he told Coombes. “Hell, when I was in the Army, there’s no way I could have pictured being here. But life can lead you to unexpected places.”
Coombes asked Thomas — or T-man, as he’s known on the street — if he wanted a haircut.
“What, right here?? Why not!” Thomas said, as Coombes recounted in an Instagram post. “I’m not moving though, I can’t move very well at all anymore.”
So Thomas lay down on the fountain as Coombes danced around him, cutting his hair and transforming his shaggy look into a military-style buzz cut. He ended up doing several haircuts that day at the fountain.
For Coombes, the campaign is about the importance of human connections. He wants to bring people together, regardless of what their relations are, and he sees the simple act of conversation as a step toward strengthening ties between people. In an age when virtual interactions can supplant a real sense of community, Coombes finds haircuts to be a simple but important way to connect with people physically and emotionally. “Real life,” he said, “is out of your screen.”
“I think there’s a reason why we read books, watch Netflix,” Coombes said. It’s a desire for escapism, and in a similar way, talking to people, learning about “how they tick … getting into people’s lives a little bit” taps into that same desire.
Talking to the homeless is also one of the best ways to get to know a place, Coombes said. He recalled meeting a 50-year-old Italian man named Henrico in a downtown square in downtown Cancún, Mexico, in January. When Coombes first approached him, Henrico was visibly upset, having just waked up from a nap to find that someone had stolen his books.
“It was sad to see him like this and the perfect opportunity to show him some kindness,” Coombes recounts. After giving Henrico a haircut, the two ended up spending several hours together, with Henrico giving Coombes a tour of the neighborhood.
“Fulfillment is different for everyone, but for me, connecting with others is what makes me tick,” Coombes wrote. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what’s led you to this moment. I want to listen and learn.” The haircut will grow out, he added, but “people like that, I’ll always remember.”
Coombes’s world travels are partially funded through companies and NGOs that commission him to speak about his campaign. As he devotes more time to it, he has steadily decreased the hours he spends in the salon at home. His most recent trip to the U.S. was sponsored by Leesa Sleep, a Virginia-based mattress company. He will leave for Barcelona soon and plans to return to the U.S. in the next few months.
When Coombes finished Thomas’s haircut, he handed him a mirror. Thomas stared at his reflection “for a really long time.” Then he had a question of his own.
“Why did you do that for me? It’s not an everyday thing.”
Coombes answered: “I loved hearing his story.”