Joshua Coombes travels the world, giving haircuts for free to homeless people. Good Trouble had a coffee with him in New York.
A few years ago, Joshua Coombes started the hashtag #DoSomethingForNothing, hoping to encourage people to do something positive and give their time with no expectation of reward. It started when he was working as hairstylist in Clapham, London, and got talking to a young man on the street who was the same age as him at the time (27). After learning about how he grew up with a dad who was a heroin addict, Joshua offered to give him a haircut. “It was what I could offer,” he says. “And then it just turned into more. Then two years ago, was when I actually decided to pursue it, whatever this is.” Now, Joshua travels the world, giving haircuts to homeless people he meets on city streets, and sharing their stories on social media along with before-and-after photographs. He has now cut the hair of hundreds of people.
What are the benefits of giving someone a haircut? Is it practical, or more of an emotional thing?
I've had people who are like, ‘Hey, actually I'm gonna go for that job interview.’ But I think what's going on deeper is someone gives a shit, who you wouldn't have known an hour before. It's a complete stranger coming up and going, ‘Hey, we don't know each other, but now we're pals.’ And revisiting that person, giving a shit, twice, three times, more. I’ll see someone I've seen before, the haircut's grown out. The first thing isn't always, ‘Hey, will you cut my hair again?’ It's, ‘Hey, let me tell you what I've been up to.’ And that's the thing.
How do you describe what you do?
I talk about the idea of charity being reframed completely. Because what I do is not charity. It's truly because we're both human. I'm not ‘giving back’. I'm like, ‘I ain't got enough to give apart from me.’ I'm not sitting on a trust fund. I think “I” is the best thing everyone can give, really.
How do you fund what you do?
For the first year I was doing this, I was still working at the salon. It got to a point where I was working with different organisations. I worked in Athens with these guys in a non-profit in Greece. They flew me over to work with refugee communities but also homeless people there. So it was like, these emails started to come in where people wanted to collaborate. It's just grown and grown... But the coolest thing about this is, this isn't just about me, it's a hashtag, it's #DoSomethingForNothing.
Tell us more about that…
Not everyone's a hairdresser. Everyone's thing might not be people who are on the street. The idea is, do something for nothing – whatever your thing is, your passion or whatever you love doing, it’s a great way to go out and make someone smile. If you dig this and want to get involved, it's there. So, we've had people posting the hashtag. The first person, this girl Jade, started coming and looking after people's dogs on the street. There's a guy called Christian in New York, he goes out and plays guitar. People are now using art... there's a yoga instructor giving free classes.
Have you ever run into trouble with authorities?
Well, the Underground in London a couple of times. Police on the streets sometimes, they’re usually super nice. The big thing recently, though, was in New York where I was cutting hair, on a side street, and a security guard came up. It's getting dark. And he's shouting at us. He even got his walkie-talkie thing, and started... while I was cutting someone's hair, trying to hit me with his thing! He was shouting louder and louder. But 99% of the time, what happens is lots of people stop and it's a way for others to have conversations, too.
What are your plans to grow this?
Trying to get all this stuff in a book off. Speaking about it in different schools. Putting on art shows is a big thing for me. I love art and music, and what excites me more than anything is using creativity to make an impact.
What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned?
I used to be in a punk band, a guitarist. Dead City Stereo. And I was in L.A. recently, with this guy I'd spent all day hanging out with. On the way to cut his hair at a park, we stopped in a coffee shop. Just like this one. And every tattooed, pierced person with a Macbook... look, I’m one of those, I'm not saying I'm any different... But it was like, ‘Homeless guy, café, what the fuck?’ He felt it, I felt it. We’ve got to work on that. Because being an alternative, artistic person, what does that truly mean to you? Because for me it means being accepting of people. It truly means being open to listen to people. We’ve got to get real. Through creativity, I think that's a great way to start doing that again.
Check out some more of Coombes’ cuts here:
Writer and editor based in New York.