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The real value of a free haircut

Under CC license from Flickr user Mr T. in DC

About 3,000 homeless people live in Oakland. Their challenges include finding places to stay, food to eat, and something else that many people take for granted: self-care. Simple things like a shower or a haircut. If you don’t have a home, where do you go to clean up?  Sometimes, a sink in a public bathroom is the best you can find.

A woman named Kim Greene saw this problem about a decade ago and decided to do something about it. She was a member of the New St. Paul Baptist church in old Oakland and offered her services as a hairdresser to the community, free, mostly to the homeless people in the neighborhood. A few years ago, we aired a piece about Greene and her homeless haircuts. I recently headed to New St. Paul’s church, to see how everything was going.

‘If everyone does a little but, nobody has to do a lot’

Daniel Dellaripa isn’t homeless. He lives in the neighborhood around the church. But getting a trim to make a good impression on potential bosses is tough, he says, because he’s in school to become a nurse practitioner. That’s where this pop-up barbershop is a godsend. 

“I'm getting my haircut for free because I'm looking for work and I've got to look nice for potential interviews.  Every Friday at noon they give out bagged lunches at St. Paul’s and a licensed barber comes in and gives free haircuts to whoever needs them. I came the first time and I had to come again because it’s growing out a little bit,” Dellaripa explains. 

We’re in New St. Paul Baptist church. It’s a beautiful old building, but the inside is surprisingly modern – and purple. Today, a bunch of long folding tables are lined up around the large main room, along with folding chairs, a few of which are occupied by some older men awaiting their haircuts. Pop music is blaring out of a small boom box, the barber’s chair is set up on a blue tarp in a corner of the church. And Dave Weathers is manning the scissors.

“I've been a member of this church and they've been doing the feeding program for a long time and you know, its just, God calls you to do something, you do it,” says Weathers.

Weathers is at New St. Paul every Friday from half past noon until the last customer is clipped – usually around two o’clock. It’s about one o’clock now, and Associate Minister Kenny Johnson is next in line for a trim. When asked if it was his idea to bring the haircuts back, Johnson replies, “Actually it was our barber’s idea.  He wanted to contribute back to his church and to his community.  And he and I and our pastor sat down and spoke and he’s ready to go.” 

Walter Henry, one of the reverends at the church, says a haircut can make a lot more than just a superficial difference “because it starts making you feel good about yourself, give you self esteem about yourself and everything. I see a lot of guys came here, they wasn’t able to get their haircut. They got it cut and it looks so much better. That’s why I like it.  It’s all about looking better, making you feel good about yourself. That’s the most important part.”

Barber Dave Weathers says it’s not a lot, but, “[he] was always taught if everybody does a little bit, nobody has to do a lot.”

Daniel Dellaripa says he just needs a little boost of confidence to feel good enough for his future interviews.  Trimmed and looking sharp, Dellaripa leaves the church. But he’ll be back. This is something that brings people from the community together around something as simple as a haircut.