I arrive at The Whitechapel Centre half an hour before Haircuts4Homeless are due to arrive, in the hopes that I can grab one of them for this quick interview. But within seconds of coming through the door there is a crowd of people wanting to get their hair cut. The group from Haircuts4Homeless waste no time and get set up straight away. Each chair they set up is instantly filled by one of our clients, and a waiting list is being drawn up.
I’m introduced to Jackie McColl, their Team Leader. As she’s in the middle of cutting a lady’s hair we agree to do the interview once she’s finished, before she starts on her next client. The lady, Jane (name changed), is visibly enjoying herself, and I get to witness first hand the fun and friendly rapport each of our clients have with the Haircuts4Homeless team. Next to Jane there are three more chairs, each of them with a male client sat down. One gentleman is having a trim, the other goes for a short back and sides, and the third is going for a shaved head. It’s no different to the welcoming and attentive atmosphere of a ‘normal’ salon, and why would it be?
Jackie finishes Jane’s hair with a beautiful blowout. Her blonde hair is long, smooth and, without a split end in sight, reminiscent of a L’Oréal advert. You can hear the emotion in Jane’s voice as she thanks Jackie; she feels like a different person. I whisk Jackie away for a quick chat before she goes to her next client. She radiates warmth, hospitality, and when I speak to her I feel as if I’ve known her for years. Jackie tells me about how Haircuts4Homeless was set up, and speaks highly of their founder, Stuart Roberts.
It started around five years ago in Romford. Stuart, a hairdresser of over 30 years, was attending and mentoring some people at an AA Centre. Inspired by someone in America he’d seen do street cuts, he decided to bring his scissors to the next meeting. He then proceeded to set up links with The Salvation Army and The Whitechapel Mission in London, two homeless charities. As word spread about what Stuart was doing, people began to offer their help. In five years it’s gone from it’s beginnings in Romford to having 64 projects on board (including us!), with over 600 volunteers, across the UK.
When I ask Jackie how she became involved with the charity she talks openly. She had her own salon for 12 years and felt motivated to use her skills to help rough sleepers in Manchester, so she began doing street cuts. Unfortunately, an onslaught of difficult circumstances including her health, her mother’s health, her sister’s disability, as well as the everyday stresses that we all face, meant that, “Something had to give. But I still wanted to help and volunteer and do something with the homeless.” Jackie gave up her salon, and word travelled through the grapevine. Stuart, hearing the news, asked Jackie if she would set up Haircuts4Homeless in Stockport.
“You don’t fancy doing Stockport for me, do you? Launching the Centre in Stockport?” He said, “Only once a month! Two hours, once a month.” Of course, she agreed.
What started with her giving up her time for two hours, once a month, has evolved into Jackie volunteering every Monday at different Centres, including The Whitechapel Centre.
“It comes from my heart, it’s what I want to do… I always say when I advertise for volunteers, that I guarantee that it’ll be the best haircut you’ll ever do. You get more satisfaction from doing these haircuts than I ever did when I was in the salon. There’s something special, and different, about doing it for the homeless, the rough sleepers… You can feel the lift in them.”
It’s not only that, Jackie explains. “I still go out cutting on the streets, I go out with an Outreach group on a Tuesday night, once a month, in the City Centre in Manchester. And that’s quite tough, because it’s raw. It’s there, it’s there on the streets. And they’re just, they’re just … they won’t make eye contact with you, they just feel invisible. So when you try and build that relationship and they can sense that… you’re not judging them, they sort of lift a bit.” Her passion is palpable.
“We say to our volunteers, you know, they are just another client. Sat in front of you. Wanting their hair cut. Wanting your service. And that’s how you treat it.”
“And you can feel, once you’ve done it and you show them that mirror, some have burst out crying and you think, ‘Oh God! What are you crying for? It’s not that bad is it?!’” She jokes, “I’ve not done that bad a job, have I?!”
Fortunately, the organisation is mostly met with positivity, although at the beginning people were querying how a haircut would help people who are homeless.
“It’s a haircut at the end of the day. It’s about making them feel something. Getting a bit of dignity back. Especially when you’ve got ones that are, for example from Barnabus in Manchester, or The Whitechapel Centre in Liverpool, they’ll come and say they have an interview, or they’re going to see a counsellor, and they’ll say that they’re going to look much better after the haircut.”
Lena Headey is their new charity ambassador, and Jackie’s excitement is tangible (as is mine)! An incredible actress and wonderful activist, her far-reaching voice is sure to give this incredible charity the boost and recognition that they so rightly deserve.
Jackie tells me how she was jokingly called the Queen of the North after setting up 10 project in the North so successfully, but she feels like she has to relinquish the title now that Lena’s on board. After seeing the hair cuts, blowouts, and smiling faces throughout The Whitechapel Centre, I daresay that our clients might disagree. Sorry Lena!
Fundraiser for The Whitechapel Centre