While most of his friends are off watching Paw Patrol, 5-year-old Jaivian would much rather watch videos about how to give a sharp haircut.
That’s because Jaivian’s dad is Joshua Santiago, a North Philly native who, for the last six years, has been giving free haircuts to people experiencing homelessness through his nonprofit, Empowering Cuts.
From the time the elder Santiago was a child, he too had always dreamed of becoming a barber—he always felt like his most confident self with a fresh cut. At age 24, in 2015, he took the leap to go to barber school, after first going back to school to earn his high school diploma.
It was while attending barber school in Wilmington—a training program he sought out for its financial aid, despite its two-hour commute from Philly—that Santiago was tasked by one of his instructors with providing haircuts at shelters.
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“Being able to provide free haircuts to someone who was homeless meant more to me than to actually receive money for it,” he says.
Santiago began taking trips to Kensington in 2017, equipped with extension cords that he would attach to his car in order to plug in his clippers; he started approaching people on the street, offering to cut their hair. The response? Overwhelmingly positive.
Over the course of the last six years, in between working paid jobs like driving for rideshare companies, he estimates that he’s given around 8,000 cuts. Until recently, the work, which he does under the auspices of his nonprofit, Empowering Cuts, was entirely self-funded, though he recently received his first-ever grant.
More than just a simple trim
Santiago’s early experiences witnessing drug addiction motivated him to serve Kensington, an area he feels a connection to given his childhood in North Philly. And about six months ago, he decided to take his skills beyond his hometown. Through a GoFundMe that raised $70,000, he purchased an RV and outfitted it with all the tools a barber needs. Then he hit the road, heading to California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois and Texas, with the goal of empowering citizens nationwide with haircuts.
No matter where he goes to provide haircuts, “it’s [always] hugs, tears and a million thank yous,” Santiago says. He believes that the confidence someone derives from a haircut is noticeable, especially when they haven’t had one for a long time; but the deeper impact, he says, comes from another person taking the time to interact and care for them.
“Being able to provide free haircuts to someone who was homeless meant more to me than to actually receive money for it,” Santiago says.
Experts at Project HOME, the Philly nonprofit dedicated to uplifting those experiencing homelessness, agree. “A haircut itself can be great, [and] the actual acts of service itself can be therapeutic and empowering,” says Kara Cohen, a nurse practitioner at Project HOME. “Experiencing homelessness can be so isolating, So there is value in making eye contact with folks. There is value in speaking kindly to people, being present for people, hearing their stories. It is powerful to provide a service where they are at the center of a really positive interaction.”
“Homelessness is [often] wrapped around drug addiction,” Santiago says. “[We need to] treat these individuals like humans. Some people don’t even give them a chance. We’re talking about individuals who got high for the first time with their mom or dad, [kids] shooting heroin since the age of nine.” But despite their circumstances, those experiencing homelessness, he says, are “some of the most beautiful people that I’ve ever met.”
Santiago knows the importance of second chances. Fending for himself as a kid while his parents were consumed by addiction, he first ran into trouble with the police at the age of 13; in 2016, he was incarcerated for drug-related charges. Now, as an adult, he lives a life of empathy and kindness; he recently participated in a charitable challenge, “7 random acts of kindness in 7 days.” He took seven people experiencing homelessness to clothing and sneaker stores, to reconnect with family, and to restaurants to share a meal.
None of this is to say that haircuts provide a solution to homelessness, especially in Philadelphia, where, according to Project HOME, there are 19,988 people currently experiencing homelessness. (Of note: Elizabeth G. Hersh, director of Philly’s Office of Homeless Services, reports that Philly is actually bucking the national trend on homelessness: Nationally, the numbers are going up; locally, they are going down.)
But haircuts and hygiene support can be a gateway to other services. Take Clean the World, an international nonprofit that provides people experiencing homelessness with, yes, soap and sanitation and hygiene tools, but uses those tools as entry points to transition folks to housing, treatment, and job placement services.
According to Clean the World, access to hygiene and wellness services can decrease homelessness by 35 percent; Clean the World’s model decreases the likelihood and severity of infections, a factor that can perpetuate the cycle of homelessness.
“Homelessness is [often] wrapped around drug addiction,” Santiago says. “[We need to] treat these individuals like humans. Some people don’t even give them a chance.
Six months after the implementation of the Fresh Start WASH (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene) and Wellness Program in Las Vegas, Clean the World recorded a 15 percent reduction in the city’s homeless population. The program offered mobile showers, Covid-19 testing and other wraparound services.
One of Santiago’s goals with the mobile barber shop is to partner with other organizations, to get individuals the services that they need; local treatment centers, for example, could be potential partners.
During the pandemic, Santiago has been using his mobile barbershop not only to give cuts, but as a promotional tool: In May, he parked the RV at an event with All In Solutions Counseling Center in New Jersey, alongside other vendors like food trucks, to generate interest in the organization. A three-on-three basketball tournament was the main event, with proceeds from the sale of $20 participation tickets benefiting Empowering Cuts.
Now that Santiago is home and has resumed giving cuts in Kensington, he takes particular pride not only in the number of cuts he’s given, but in the fact that his children seem to have inherited his empathetic spirit: These days, when they notice people experiencing homelessness on the street, they don’t look away—they nudge their father to help them.
The Citizen is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic mobility. Follow the project on Twitter @BrokeInPhilly.Header image courtesy Joshua Santiago