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Joshua Coombes started cutting hair for people sleeping rough. It became a global movement.

Joshua Coombes spotted the man from across the street. He was lying on the footpath in Downtown Los Angeles, not far from passing traffic. Men and women stepped over and around him, this inconvenience, this obstacle to their day.

Joshua approached the man, unsure of how to help. He started with something simple. A question. “Are you OK?”

That man’s name was Tomás. And that day, he became one of the hundreds of people living on the streets around the world that Joshua, a hairdresser by trade, has connected with and transformed.

This is him…

 

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Based in London, Joshua, 32, offers his services free of charge to men, women and children experiencing homelessness. Out there in the open, he gives them a new style, trim or shave.

As the snips of hair fall to the footpath or onto the grass, something happens. A change. Their shoulders open up, they start to look a bit taller in the world.

And if you ask Joshua, it’s not because of what he’s done to their hair.

#DoSomethingForNothing

Josh is very transparent about the fact that he used to be one of those people he saw that day in L.A. The ones who step around or avoid a person in the street, unsure of how to help or fearful of what might happen if they did.

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He felt, as he told Mamamia, helpless.

“I’d think, ‘how the hell can I interact with a problem that seems so big as just one person?'” he said. “But from that energy of feeling shitty about something, I transformed it into at least finding my own touchpoint for how I could positively affect someone’s day.”

Joshua Coombes. Image: supplied.

He found that in 2015, after a shift at a London salon, he decided to approach a man on the street and offer to give him a haircut. It was a spontaneous decision, but over the coming months became a regular one. And from there, it transformed something far bigger; a movement that he calls 'Do Something for Nothing'.

It's not a charity or an organisation, but a crusade of sorts that exists via social media. It began when Joshua started documenting some of his encounters with people on the street on Instagram with the hashtag #DoSomethingForNothing, in the hopes that other people may do just that in their own communities. And they did.

More than 175,000 people now follow Joshua's posts. He and his movement have attracted international media attention and, in 2017, was featured in Morgan Freeman's Netflix documentary The Story of Us.

"It's great. People started to get involved, doing their own things. Whether that's parents taking their kids out on the weekend to deliver food, or a woman who went to an elderly home to have lunch with someone who didn't have family anymore," he said. "It quickly became about whatever someone else's version of this [hashtag] is."

 

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This is Samantha, 28 years old, originally from Essex, homeless in London for the last three years. The Samantha most people will see each day is a girl hustling to make her next pound, in the hope to accumulate enough money to buy her next fix. Surviving on any food or drinks kindly brought for her by people passing by. Looking at this on the surface, it's easy to see how a certain opinion could be formed. As I was cutting Samantha's hair she started speaking to me more deeply about her addiction - "I don't know if it was ever fun for me really. I saw hard drugs from an early age at home. I've always been around it. I wish it didn't have a hold on me like this but it has." It's very difficult to go into detail, but Samantha was very honest with me about some abuse she's suffered as child, telling me these events have always effected her. I could see there was a deep pain here and that heroin is her best attempt to begin to relieve this. Getting to the roots of a story in this way is so important to try and understand the complexities of an issue like drug addiction. Samantha has a boyfriend she spends most of her time with on the street, they've been together for years now. This relationship has it's complications. They have children of their own that are being looked after by relatives at the moment. It's a really sad situation and Samantha clearly feels that - "I miss my children so much, I need to sort my life out, I know I do. I talk to them on the phone whenever I can but it's never enough." I know there are so many negative elements in this post that it's probably difficult to feel the hope in the situation, but here it is - I saw a change in Samantha during the time we spent together. It may have been slight, but it was there. She told me how much it meant just having someone outside of her usual circle to speak with and how much it means when people acknowledge her each day and smile. She knows she's made mistakes and that weighs heavily on her, but any judgement on top of this will surely only add to the pain. Your influence can make a difference, it's up to you how you use it. #DoSomethingForNothing

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Meanwhile, he continues with his, cutting hair on the streets of the U.K. and abroad — from Miami to Mumbai and Melbourne. After all, it's a universal problem. In Australia alone, more than 116,000 people were estimated to be sleeping on the streets when the last census was taken in 2016. But the true number is likely to be far higher.

His encounters aren't about solving that problem. But they do ease those of the people under his cape.

Because Joshua quickly realised the impact of his work isn't about the service he's providing. It's in the time he gives, the conversation he offers, the touch. During their cut, most open up about their experience and he simply listens.

"We all need that. You know, when you're feeling really isolated and sometimes it feels like society is against you, it just can be really important to sit down and talk and be listened to," he said. "I think we're all hard-wired to want human connection."

That's why the 'change' happens in the men and women he tends to. The shoulders, the posture. It happened to Tomás that day in L.A.. After the haircut, on a day when everyone else had ignored him, he and Joshua shared a meal together.

As Joshua wrote at the time, "I couldn’t have cared less what had led him to that moment. All I was thinking was that he’s a human being and he’s in the f**king gutter..."

 

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"For some people, they are able to recognise themselves from a time before, they reclaim a sense of identity in some way, and that can be really beautiful," he said.

"I'm not saying I've found the solution [to homelessness]. I'm saying it's really simple to make someone feel like 'them' again. It doesn't have to be because of a haircut, it can happen through art, through giving people some of the right clothes... There's a lot of hope in that."

How to do something.

Josh's version of "something" now also involves using art to dismantle stigma around homelessness.

He's currently in Melbourne, under a partnership with haircare brand evo, to launch an art exhibition that aims to 'amplify the lives of those experiencing isolation, homelessness and hardship'. Presented by local charity HoMie on Thursday December 19, it's called Do Something for Nothing: Light and Noise and features portraits of some of the people whose hair Joshua has cut over the past few years.

"We live in a time where [homelessness] is rising in every single city. I think that's where we really have to go back to basics and recognise that storytelling is one of the most powerful tools we have. We have to say, 'look at this, let's take a closer look,'" he said. "We've got to get out there and start having those conversations ourselves."

 

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Los Angeles, London, Manchester, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin and now Melbourne this Thursday. @gotvitaminc and I are really happy to be here and partner with our friends @homie.com.au to bring @lightnoiseart exhibition to Australia. This is a #dosomethingfornothing art exhibition that aims to amplify the lives of those experiencing isolation, homelessness and hardship. Thursday the 19th of December 7-9pm for one night only, in HoMie’s new warehouse space - 35-53 Emma St, Collingwood (directly behind @thegasometer) Head to the link in my bio to RSVP your free ticket. Share with your pals in Melbourne. Look forward to seeing you there! #DoSomethingForNothing video: @gregmccann_video

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And that goes for the rest of us. Even if we don't have relevant skills to offer, Joshua notes that we have something equally valuable: time. Be it five minutes on a lunch break to have a chat with someone sleeping rough, half an hour on a weekend to offer food and conversation.

Do that, Joshua says, and you'll encounter everything that being a human means. People who've had success and fallen hard, people who were born into a situation that means they never had the chance to rise in the first place. Learning their stories can help bridge the gap between 'us' and 'them', to see the person in that 'obstacle' lying on the footpath.

"Let's just start with that one person in front of you, that audience of one," he said.

"You're going to find a lot of problems, challenges... You've got to create whatever boundaries you would in your normal life to be able to deal with some of the pain that's going to come with it.

"But truly, when you feel useful in some way, when you're actually going out there and interacting with some of the problems you may see, I just don't think there's much better than that."

The Do Something for Nothing: Light and Noise Exhibition will be held on December 19 at the Homie Warehouse (33 – 35 Emma St, Collingwood, Melbourne). For details and to register for a free ticket, visit the website.

Featured image: Instagram/supplied.

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