WASHINGTON – It felt and sounded like any other District barbershop on a busy Saturday. Laughs and chatter mixed with the buzz of the barbers’ clippers, political debates ensued and barbers complimented beaming clients as they finished.
“So, what do you want done today,” barber Lorenzo McCrea asked a customer as he took his seat in the chair.
But this was no barbershop. Instead, it was an opportunity for scores of men who struggle each day for a job, a meal and a place to sleep to — at least for a moment — feel better about themselves and to get a hand up.
“A haircut can make a man stand 10-feet-tall,” said Joe Paul, motivational speaker and one of the sponsors of “New Year, New Me,” a day-long service to provide help for homeless men.
Nearly 200 men from the Central Union Mission Gale’s School Shelter near Union Station gathered to receive free haircuts, food and job appropriate clothing and counseling.
STRIVE DC, a workforce development organization, provided suit separates and ties for participants to choose from as they search for jobs.
Paul provided the group with life and job counseling during two sessions. He told the group that he had come to talk to them because at one point in his life, he had been just like them. He had been a homeless teenager in Miami.
With the support of a group home, he said, he was able to finish high school and attend Florida State University in Tallahassee.
“We are responsible for each other, brothers,” he said. “I owe it to you.”
Paul’s presentation described basic interview and networking skills, such as having knowledge of a business before the interview, preparing questions for the interview, and creating an elevator pitch.
“Happiness is a choice,” Paul told the men. “You’re not responsible for what happens to you, but you are for how you respond.”
The men said they appreciated his message and particularly the messenger.
“There is a difference between someone who is an eloquent speaker and someone who has been in our shoes,” one observer said.
They also appreciated their haircuts.
Daniel Maya, for example, explained to his barber the importance cutting his hair the right length for maintenance.
Their cuts were provided by about a dozen student barbers from Bennett Career Institute, which trains students in makeup, cosmetology and barbering.
“They can call me anytime,” said student Derrick Shelton, who provided haircuts for about 15 customers.
McCrea, a fourth-year instructor at the school, said it is common policy for Bennett student to provide community service. He said he believes the haircuts will make a difference in how the men see themselves and how others perceive them.
Clyde Alford, who is living at the mission while he looks for a permanent home, beamed after his haircut. A stroke in 2007 left the now 50-year-old former construction worker unable to walk without the assistance of a cane, Alford said.
“I didn’t just come for the haircuts, I came for the knowledge,” he said.
“I got to do some thinking, and the haircut was just a plus.”
He said he typically rents rooms throughout the city and stays at the shelter when affordable rooms are not available. He said he hopes that physical therapy and the workshop will prepare him for work.
Mission resident Jerone Beatty said he wanted people to know that the people at the mission were just like them or possibly members of their families. Beatty recalled how he and his father once used to feed the homeless.
“You might be one check from homelessness,” he said.
Originally from South Carolina, Beatty, a 54-year-old father of two, said he came to D.C. eight months ago for a demolition job with a national construction company.
Administrative hold ups prevented the job from coming through, leaving him without the typical shelter benefits of working with the company, he said. Beatty said he found renting a room in the city’s southeast quadrant too dangerous and went to the mission three days before the employment event.
He said he will stay at the Mission for the remainder of his 21 day agreement and then leave for a contracted job with the same construction company to build power lines in Wisconsin.
Until then, Beatty said, the haircut, message from Paul and the clothes were helpful.
“I will use the advice to find work in the city,” he said.