The first cut is the kindest

Hairdresser Joshua Coombes was walking to a friend’s one evening when he decided to offer a homeless man a free haircut. It was the start of a remarkable movement 

Hero image

One of the unexpected effects of lockdown was a newfound appreciation for hairdressers. When the doors of salons and barbers finally reopened, people described a sense of relief, not only that they were being taken care of for the first time in months, but that they could recognise themselves again.

It’s not just the act of having a haircut that’s restorative – it’s the impact it can have on someone’s confidence and outlook, and something we can all relate to, whatever our circumstances.

“You need somewhere you can feel safe. If you haven’t got that, what can you build from?”

Hair stylist Joshua Coombes regularly witnesses the transformative effect. For the last six years, he’s taken to the streets to provide free haircuts to the homeless, listening to their stories and sharing them as part of the Do Something For Nothing movement he created online where people are encouraged to contribute their skills and time to those in need.

He’s now compiled a book, Do Something For Nothing: Seeing Beneath the Surface of Homelessness, Through the Simple Act of a Haircut, in which he details his own story, as well as those of the people he’s met across the globe.

“When you take away this word ‘homeless’ and all the stigmas and political conversations attached to the issue, you’ve just got people with stories who for whatever reason are experiencing homelessness. This thing doesn’t discriminate. It’s a series of events, and the only reason I do this stuff is to try and be a conduit for the people I see in the street,” says Coombes, 33, who lives in Peckham, south London.

“When you get your hair cut, you’re putting your trust in someone and saying: ‘Look after me for a minute.’ It’s a very intimate experience. You can trace that back to grooming one another in a primal way, like our ancestors did thousands of years ago. On the outside it might not seem the most important thing but it’s that emotional response, and it’s more than just the haircut – it’s the relationship you build with someone.”

One of the people he’s forged a close relationship with is Lavane, who appears in the book. She first met Coombes on the Strand in London one damp evening in November 2019.

“I was still begging on the streets when Joshua saw me and we started chatting, and he explained he was giving free haircuts. I then realised he was the guy who’d done Nick’s hair,” says Lavane, referring to her fiancé who’d passed away earlier that year. His death made the headlines as his loyal dog Scarper stayed with him for 12 hours after he’d died, which meant he could be identified.

“Obviously, I loved Nick and he’s gone and the book’s a way of keeping his legacy. I’m also excited for Josh, and glad he’s shared my story as well,” she says.

Their chance encounter couldn’t have been timelier as Lavane was due to take part in a discussion following a screening of her film by Real Stories in which she’d used an iPhone to document her life on the streets.

“I asked Josh if he could do my hair so it’d look nice as they wanted me to go up on stage and talk about my film. That’s how our friendship started.”

In the book Lavane, who’s originally from Derby, reveals she was abused as a child and taken into care at 13, moving between foster and children’s homes.

“I just wanted to settle down and have my own family. I moved to London after meeting someone and ended up marrying him, but I was severely abused by him for 10 years. He nearly killed me twice,” she says.

It was after her second hospitalisation, in 2018, that Lavane ended up living on the streets.

Lavane and her dog Misty and main image: Josh Coombes (photo: Al Noelle Walter)

“It was the only thing I could do. It was either that or be killed. Walking on eggshells constantly, waking up with hands around your throat every morning and being beaten to shit – it wasn’t a life. He used to get a kick out of seeing the fear in me.

“They [domestic abusers] mentally have a hold over you without you even realising it and he did have a hold over me in a big way. He belittled me. He knew my history, knew I’d been abused by my own mum and dad, and he would have fun and take the mickey out of it, so it was very difficult. It took a lot for me to walk away from him.”

Meeting Nick was an unexpected source of comfort and joy.

“I was in a low place and didn’t have much self-confidence, so it took me a while to pull myself back together and it started with meeting Nick. He saw something in me and gave me my confidence back,” she says.

“When he died, I thought my life was going to end, to be honest with you. I didn’t want to be anymore. It took me a long time to bring myself back up and the film started to give me that. It gave me something to concentrate on.”

It was also an opportunity to share the reality of life on the streets, and the particular challenges she faces as a woman.

“It’s when you start your period, being able to go somewhere to change yourself, somewhere to clean yourself, that is very difficult. Going to the toilet – just simple things everybody should be able to do. Or you’ll have someone coming over offering you money for sex. It belittles you more and more every day. You have to act a lot stronger than you are as people see you’re more vulnerable.”

While there are many people who do show compassion, there are also plenty of passers-by who literally look the other way.

“They’ll just walk past or start covering their nose, or say: ‘You’re a bum, get a job’. That’s very difficult when you’re at your lowest point.”

Lavane’s even had people deride her for having a dog, Misty, who she’s had since she was a pup and before she
was homeless.

Misty isn’t just a companion and source of protection but family, yet many hotels and hostels don’t allow dogs, which makes for heartbreaking decisions.

When we speak, Lavane’s homeless again following months in a hostel where Misty could stay and has had to hand her over to someone she trusts while she tries to organise accommodation.

“I want to get stable, get a job, have a normal life. I used to work at a special needs school with children who have learning difficulties, and I loved what I did, but you need somewhere to live, somewhere you can lock the door and feel safe. That’s the foundation for someone. If you haven’t got that, what can you build from? But the housing situation just seems bleak,” says Lavane who despite everything remains hopeful. She’s also engaged again.

“After Nick I didn’t think I would find anyone. I thought that was it but I met Michael a few months ago and he’s lovely. I’m trying to put myself together again. I do feel proud of myself and that I’ve achieved a lot even though I’m in a difficult place right now.”

It’s why she’s keen to share her story – to let others in similar circumstances “find hope that life can go on”, and to tackle common misconceptions.

“A lot of people think you’re on the street because of drugs and alcohol but there’s always a reason why someone’s homeless because no one chooses to be homeless, do they?

“Having people like Josh around me is giving me the strength to not give up. You don’t get many in this world who you can trust and will stick by you honestly from the heart. He’s very kind and gentle, and what he’s done for people all over the world – he’s a really amazing person.’

For Coombes’s part, he says he never saw himself “on this crusade”.

“I understand very much a haircut isn’t going to change someone’s life tangibly speaking, but you can get a connection with someone and that can lead to beautiful things,” he says.

“If someone hasn’t trusted someone in a long time or they’re feeling isolated, and someone bothers to come along without any strings attached and say ‘Hey, I’d like to talk and listen to you’, it can really mean something. Also, it can lead to logistically knowing how to help someone.”

Music was Coombes’s first passion following school, and he didn’t pick up a pair of scissors until he was 24.

“I got to this point where I needed a new start. I’d got quite comfortable with what I was doing with music, and I needed to grow into the next stage of my life,” he says.

But cutting hair was never a long-held desire. “It was more like: ‘Maybe I could do that,’” he says, laughing.

“It took me back to basics, back to training in something. Once I overcame those challenges, that’s when it all made sense. It was like, of course, this is where I’m supposed to be. I’m spending my day with people, having conversations and that’s always been my strength. It’s the reason I was kicked out of class at school, for talking too much, but it’s something I enjoy and I’m good at, and by that, I mean I’m able to listen to people.”

It was one evening in the spring of 2015 that he offered his first free cut on the way to a friend’s house.

“I got chatting to this charismatic man who was living on the streets, and remembered I had all my tools with me and asked him whether he wanted a haircut, and he said yes. I’m so thankful for that moment because it basically introduced me to everything I’m doing now.

“I started going out whenever I could and began writing about the experiences and taking photos, and came up with this hashtag #dosomethingfornothing, which started to grow online. It’s a reminder that when you can, when you’ve got the time, be available for each other and listen to one another because we all need that.”

Coombes left his job at the end of 2015 and hasn’t been paid for a haircut since.

“When I look back, I don’t know what I was playing at but I wanted to see where it went. I felt more fulfilled from a personal aspect having these interactions with people, which felt more genuine as I was getting sick and tired with surface conversations.”

Although he’s not always met with enthusiasm, he remains undeterred.

“I have to appreciate sometimes people don’t want to talk to anyone, let alone have a haircut, but what’s the worst-case scenario? They tell you to go away? My mission’s just to go out there, smile, have a chat, and if they want to talk, go from there.”

Do Something for Nothing: Seeing Beneath the Surface of Homelessness, Through the Simple Act of a Haircut by Joshua Coombes (Murdoch Books) is out now

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to The first cut is the kindest

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.