For many homeless people, a haircut can be the last thing on their minds. A warm place to sleep and some food are often a higher priority.
But for south London hairdresser Joshua Coombes, giving a rough sleeper a haircut has become a personal mission to humanise the homeless.
Coombes, 30, from Peckham, began offering to cut the hair of homeless men on his days off from working in a barbers in 2015. His images on Instagram, with the hashtag #dosomethingfornothing, quickly evolved into an internationally renowned campaign promoting selfless acts through social media platforms.
Since the campaign started, the hashtag has garnered over 9,000 Instagram posts and Coombes now travels around the globe to promote the cause, from Indonesia to Colombia, Washington to Mexico. His photographs are accompanied by the stories of some of those he meets.
After speaking last week in Forest Hill at Featured in Fifteen, a bi-monthly community arts project held at The Signal pub that invites local artists, performers and activists to speak about their work, Coombes explained his credo to ELL: “The whole idea [behind #dosomethingfornothing] is that it’s not about haircuts and not about homelessness, it’s about communities and doing what you love to make someone smile. It’s about seeing a human connection and that resonates in every single place.”
On November 8, homeless charity Shelter published statistics showing Lewisham has 6,198 homeless people, meaning that it has the twelfth highest proportion of homeless people of any area in the country.
Homelessness is on the rise across the UK, with homeless charity Crisis publishing their latest figures estimating over 4,100 rough sleepers each night, more than double the amount in 2010.
Coombes said: “I’m not about solving the problem. Of course I want change but I can’t do that alone. Nor can you. People get hung up on what the solution is and it stops them from actually doing something.”
The hairdresser uses his trade to connect with the homeless but also convey to his 180,000 followers on Instagram how to participate in the hashtag: “The conversation comes first. The haircut grows out, it is just superficial.
“Your time is more important. That’s been removed from our thoughts a bit because of all the material stuff. It really doesn’t matter what you do to facilitate the conversation or the connection.”
The message behind Coombes’s hashtag has inspired others, from vet Jade Statt who gives free health checks to homeless people’s dogs, to musician Chris Leamy who plays his guitar and sings on the streets, starting the hashtag #heplaysforme alongside Coombes’s campaign.
While Lewisham Council works on its long-term strategy to house the homeless, a spokesperson for Deptford-based homeless charity, the 999 Club, told ELL: “The immediate alleviation of suffering is really important in setting you up to take that long-term journey off the streets.”
The 999 Club spokesperson said of Coombes’s work: “It’s easy to ignore homelessness and any project that reminds us all that we’re one community and we all have responsibilities towards one another can only be a good thing. If your self-esteem isn’t great and you’re feeling isolated, haircuts can make you feel happy and they’re a part of our identity.”
A homeless rough sleeper is 35 times more likely to commit suicide than the average person, with homelessness leading to further problems such as illness, relationship breakdowns and social isolation.
Coombes told ELL: “There’s drug abuse, mental health issues, people with suicidal tendencies, there’s a very real side and that really makes me tick.”
Surpassing a one-off haircut, Coombes remains in close contact with the locals he helps: “There’s a couple guys I’ve got to know well in Peckham and Brixton. I’ve dotted around those areas. When I see someone two or three times in a row, they don’t ask ‘when are you going to cut my hair again?’, it’s ‘I need to tell you about this, or that.’”
His emphasis constantly returns to the conversation and offering support on a human level: “People message me saying ‘there’s a guy outside this place or that’ and I will try to make it over there but I also say ‘what’s your do something for nothing, what can you do?’ Sure, they might need a haircut but what about the other stuff?
“The hashtag is supposed to be accessible to everyone. It’s not about me, I can’t claim whatever this is, the hashtag is as much yours as it is mine. It’s the human connection, it’s kindness. Being kind with each other, that’s always going to be the most important thing.”