"There's not much to cut — I grow more hair on the back of my neck than on my head," says Bobby. He's all gowned up and ready for the clippers to leave him looking suave, but Bobby's not at the barbers. He's in the admin office at the Whitechapel Mission, where Haircuts4Homeless are setting up for the morning.
The East End refuge, off Whitechapel Road, has been open since 6am, offering breakfast to anyone who's spent the night on the street. "It's 50p but you get a massive plate," says Bobby who's first in line when the Haircuts4Homeless team arrives at 9am.
"We go where they eat, because then we've got a captive audience," says hairdresser Stewart Roberts who founded the charity five years ago. "If we go to a new place, they can be a bit wary, but we do one haircut and that gets the ball rolling," says Stewart who's been cutting hair at the Whitechapel Mission for the past three years.
It's a family effort, with Stewart's sister Belinda Lorenzo-Hernandez on front of house duty. "I wear a lot of hats," says Belinda, who works full time for the charity, doing the books, keeping on top of the diary, organising the volunteers, and travelling around the country with Stewart, making sure everything runs smoothly.
Today, Belinda is staving off chaos by taking names at the door of the admin office, and adding them to the running order. Lucas, who's fourth in, says: "I left my breakfast on the table — the haircut is more important!"
"There was a girl who came in the other week who I went to school with"
Originally from Poland, this is Lucas's second haircut with the Haircuts4Homeless team. "The first time was last month — I came for breakfast and I saw they were cutting hair. It was very nice, and I was very happy with it. My ex-girlfriend always said my hair didn't look good, so for me, getting my hair cut is important."
Lucas has been living on the street since splitting up with his girlfriend. "She thought I went with someone else but I didn't. When we split up, I started drinking. I had an £80 a day job, cash in hand on a building site, but my boss smelled alcohol on me and said it was too dangerous. Now my girlfriend has a new man."
I ask Lucas how long he’s been homeless. "That is a very difficult question to answer. Sometimes I have work. Then I start to drink and I lose everything. The first time I came to the Mission I was 26 — now I am 37. I spent a year in rehab but I need rehab after rehab."
Barrington has been coming to Whitechapel Mission for a couple of years. He offers me a chocolate out of his pocket and shows me a report in the paper about homeless people dying. "I usually cut my own hair but my machine's broken so I came here. When I get some money, I'll get new ones," he says, hoping it's before Christmas.
Barrington lives in Stoke Newington. "There's nothing like this there, so it's worth travelling. When I leave here, I'm going to a soup kitchen that does West Indian food. I volunteer at one on a Sunday in London Fields." At 62, Barrington tells me: "I'm too old to be homeless. I've been there, done that. I was a plumber, a labourer, I worked in a record company. I've worked all my life, but I'm not working at the moment." And his living situation now? Barrington says: "It's complicated."
Lee Cook, who's doing Barrington's hair, has been volunteering with Haircuts4Homeless for the last three years. "I grew up around here, so I know quite a few of the people who come in," says Lee. "There was a girl who came in the other week who I went to school with. She came in to use the centre and ended up getting her hair done." He adds: "One of our former clients is London’s Happiest Bus Driver. He's turned his life around — I see him everywhere now!"
"We see people visibly lift. They come in hunched over and they walk out tall"
Lee spends two days a week working in a Hoxton salon and the rest of the time he's in demand as a freelancer, while Richard O’Brien, who's joined the Haircuts4Homeless team for the first time today, works at Trevor Sorbie in Covent Garden. "I don't just cut their hair — I do eyebrows, ears, neck, the lot," says Lee, explaining: "They think they're saving 10 to 12 quid, but they're getting a premium job — it would actually be a lot more!"
Lee found out about Haircuts4Homeless when a client tagged him in a Facebook post, saying: "Lee, you'd be good at this!" And he is. Aside from his skills with scissors, Lee radiates warmth, from his initial handshake, to the head massage he gives before he says goodbye.
"I think the experience is much more than a haircut," says Stewart. "We're hands on. We're touching people who don't often get spoken to. You can't have a barrier up when someone's touching you. We see people visibly lift. They come in hunched over and they walk out tall."
Stewart has an easy rapport with the guys whose hair he's cutting. "This is the fourth time I've been here," says Darren, as Stewart massages his scalp. "I think it's more than that, mate!" says Stewart, laughing. "You do a good job because I wouldn’t let no one cut my hair," says Darren, who tells me: "I was born in Stepney Green, but I'm always in Whitechapel."
Michael is from Cork. "The standard haircut is £12 but I don't have the money — I gamble it," says Michael. "If I come here, I can give that £12 to charity." Stewart, who's trimming Michael's beard, pauses to raise an eyebrow. "Is this the bookies' charity?" he asks. Michael laughs and says: "Yes, I give it to the bookies' retirement fund!"
Lee's next client is Abdul, who's having his haircut here for the third time. "My partner told me they do free haircuts — she brought me here," says Abdul. "They do an excellent job. It's £10 for a normal trim. When you're homeless, or even on benefits, how can you afford it?" he asks.
"Having been a salon owner for 25 years, I'd become disillusioned"
Abdul says he's living on the streets in Whitechapel. "It’s a sore point for me. The saddest thing is, I can't blame nobody. It's an amalgamation of things — company, drugs, relationships. I'm only £3,000 in rent arrears, and I'm paying it, but my neighbours complained. I'm Bangladeshi, and my neighbours are Bangladeshi. I've got a wife in Bangladesh, and a woman here who I'm not married to. It's frowned upon. That's what it was, I think. I don't know what to do. I don't know how to move forward."
Today's clients are all men, but according to Stewart: "More and more women are coming now. Less women come to this session because there are so many men, but there is a women's group on a Friday."
Ashley is next to sit in Stewart's chair. This is the first time he's had his hair cut here. "I came for breakfast with my friend. He's had his hair cut here before," says Ashley. “I just saw them — I didn't know they'd be here today."
Originally from South Africa, Ashley has been in the UK for 17 years. "I came over when I was 18 and worked in hotels," says Ashley, who became homeless recently after losing his job in a pub. "I was paid cash in hand, and the bank closed my account because I wasn't using it. And because I lived in the pub, when I lost my job, I had no home, and I didn't have any bank account or proof of address." Ashley currently lives in a tent, pitched in a park. But he feels optimistic, assuring me: "I'm in the process of getting it all sorted!"
The guys walking out with freshly cut hair aren't the only ones to benefit from the experience. "It's changed my life," says Stewart. "Having been a salon owner for 25 years, I'd become disillusioned. Kids don't go into hairdressing for the business side of it, they do it to make people feel good. This is the purest form of hairdressing because it's not about money or business, it's just about doing people's hair. It's: 'D'you want a haircut, mate? D'you want to feel better?'"
"I’ll be doing this for the rest of my life"
"I'm 13 years sober, and I've spent the last 10 years helping people with alcoholism and drugs," says Stewart, as he explains how Haircuts4Homeless came about. "I was doing a talk at the Salvation Army in Romford, "and when I saw homeless people coming in for lunch, I thought, 'I'll take my scissors in next time.'
"That first haircut at the Salvation Army reignited my love for hairdressing — and then my friends started getting involved."
Now, with 40,000 haircuts under its belt, Haircuts4Homeless pops up in Ilford, Camden, Walthamstow and Whitechapel — as well as 40 or so other places in the UK and Ireland, and even New York. "We're a registered charity now, so people can even run the marathon for us!" says Stewart.
For Richard, it's been quite different to a morning at Trevor Sorbie. "It's a different style of working," he says. "I'm used to hour-long appointments, with consultations and a mirror in front of me — and I don't usually use clippers. With this, we did a lot more haircuts and a lot of the guys didn't understand English, so it was hard to understand what they wanted."
Despite this, Richard has no qualms about putting it in his diary for next month. "I'm in the WhatsApp group now — there's no going back! I just need to adapt my style of working." He explains: "If you're on the streets, you're not feeling good about yourself, and in a job that can be so superficial, this is making people feel good. So in a small way, it seems like a good way to help."
"I’ll be doing this for the rest of my life," says Stewart, who shines a light on the rapport I saw this morning, when he explains: "I've got that empathy with them because of my past. If I hadn't changed my ways, I could've joined them."
Samantha Rea can be found tweeting here.