Armed with a pair of scissors, clippers, and the desire to help others, we meet Yonny, a hairdresser from the team ‘Greenlight Hair4Homeless’ – an initiative that provides free haircuts for London’s homeless.
Fizzy pop, fries and laughter. We’re on the vibrant south side of the London river today, under a mysterious converted railway arch and location for our afternoon interview. We’ve left the busyness of an eerie, bright and spacious hair salon. The popular beauty jaunt and the cool workplace of Yonny, an animated London based hairdresser filled with countless anecdotes to share. Seated in a cosy, rustic, American styled restaurant next door, we fully embrace the transatlantic experience and noise. Despite the ‘clinking’ sound of drink glasses and the quiet natter of orders being placed, the atmosphere is remarkably relaxed, chilled and calm.
“It’s really funny, I never thought I was going to become a hairdresser,” Yonny grins over a large glass of sparkling lemonade as we discuss job occupations. “Sometimes you can find your career but sometimes a career can find you.” Wise words from someone who left home at the tender age of 16. The Colombian native branched out on his own, searching high and low for any work he could find. “I didn’t speak English at the time. Working in a hair salon seemed like a suitable job. I was making tea, coffee and sweeping the floor.” Impressing his bosses with his perseverance, the curious assistant was given more responsibilities, assisting the more experienced hairdressers with daily duties. Quickly grasping complex tasks, the budding apprentice was encouraged to pursue a career within the field.
The journey from cleaning floors to being a busy self employed hairdresser hasn’t always been a bed of roses, as the driven professional explains. “The passion didn’t come straight away. I just needed a job and needed to pay my bills.” Yonny eventually settled into his career and life, loving the very job that by his own admission, accidentally found him. However, several years ago, questioning where his life was leading him, he began to search for answers. “After being a hairdresser for 16 years, I reached a point where I began to question – where am I going?”
Randomly scrolling through social media one day, as we all do, he came across a post that caught his attention. He discovered a hairdresser from New York who was going out onto the streets of the city, offering free haircuts to the homeless. “I thought, this is such a great idea. I’m going to start something similar myself.” Needing no further confirmation, he knew this was something he felt passionately about and looked to ways to set this new ‘idea’ in motion. “I spoke to Ruth and Nathan, former leaders of Greenlight, a week or two after joining the team.” Through conversation, delving into his hairdressing expertise and vision over coffee, Yonny was persuaded to join a new team, becoming one of the first hairdressers to front an exciting, life changing project.
It would become Hair4Homeless, part of a larger initiative known as Greenlight. The concept was conceived in 2007 by Gary Clarke, who was moved by the growing crisis and thought surely more could be done for London’s rough sleepers. It was evident through research and assessment of current services that basic medical needs were not being met. Not wanting to replicate existing services, a small team of health professionals came together for the social justice initiative – offering minimal, non-invasive healthcare from a mobile medical unit for those sleeping in the roughest conditions within the capital. Operating every night of the week in several London boroughs, as well as Kent, skilled volunteers see to minor injuries like cuts, bruises and other health complaints. 12 years on and three medical vans later, the team which is made up of healthcare professionals, security personnel, marketing executives and people from all walks of life, works closely with other external support agencies offering guidance as well as signposting clients to organisations that provide housing advice, job referrals and mental health therapy.
The vision for Greenlight has always been clear – that God must be visible through the way in which the volunteers operate. In all forms of communication whether it be speaking or listening – God is here, God cares. A typical night serving for the Hair4Homeless resembles that of many other groups in church.
“We always meet at the Greenlight van. Then we do normal meetings, prayer requests, praise reports and stuff like that”, Yonny diligently explains. Once duties and responsibilities have been discussed and delegated, it’s important to check equipment has been sterilised from the night before, making sure everything is in good shape and condition to use. “We prepare ourselves for the moment and then we go to the location, depending on where it is.” The season and weather plays a part in where we decide to park the medical van. “In summer, we try to walk on the streets or we find a place where homeless people congregate in groups. In winter, we go to shelters.” Every shift varies with each hairdresser cutting and styling hair from 2 to 20 haircuts night. Above all, the health of the client is first priority. If there are any visible medical concerns, they will be seen by the health practitioner from the Greenlight team and receive a haircut on a separate occasion.“It can happen to anyone.” Yonny’s voice softens when mulling over the plight of homelessness. “I remember this case where one man lost his whole family in a car accident – just like that. He started drinking, and then he lost his job. He couldn’t work anymore and therefore couldn’t pay his mortgage.
It can happen to anyone.” For many that are living on the streets, it can be a daunting and isolating experience. A person without a bed to sleep on at night, may go without speaking to a single soul for months on end. It is no secret that the homelessness epidemic is growing at an alarming rate in the UK. In London alone, homelessness rose by 18% last year (Source: The Guardian viamungos.org). Yonny and the team often encounter many people living rough in the city that don’t necessarily fit the stereotype that is often imagined, “We find rough sleepers on the street who actually work during the day. They prefer to work and send all the money back home to their families and to their kids.”Not knowing that their loved ones are living in this way, Yonny believes one of the reasons many homeless people face this heart-wrenching predicament is due to the high living costs in the capital. “Rent can be too expensive, so it’s quite a lot for some homeless people to afford.”
Faced with these harsh realities of life, the idea of a new hairdo’ may seem frivolous to some, but people who are without a home are often judged critically on their appearances. Whilst a haircut may not lessen someone’s problems, it may, however, reignite a feeling and a sense of hope within them. Yonny recalls one experience. “We met this lady a week before the annual colour Conference. We did her hair and by the end of the session, she started crying. Thanking the seasoned hairdresser for the splendid new haircut, he delves further into the moving experience. “You made me feel like a woman again,” she cried.“When you are on the streets, you don’t do your hair anymore, you don’t shower that much, you wear trousers, you just basically look like a boy. You become quite a strong character because you have to. You can’t just let anyone come and take advantage of you.” Yonny shares a picture of the lady with her dazzling new style for all the team to see, explaining how the new haircut reminded the woman of what she was becoming. “She felt pretty again,” he recalled. It wouldn’t be the last time Yonny would see the woman as he goes on to illustrate. “We invited her to Colour. I was so surprised because I didn’t expect that I was going to see her. She couldn’t stop smiling. That’s what we can do sometimes, just plant a seed. It’s not for us to see the fruit, someone else will see the fruit growing.” It’s with this idea of growth and seeds, that we come full circle as the passionate creative confidently smiles. “Now I see why I am a hairdresser, now I see why God called me to this career.” beams the tattooed coiffeur whilst debating the notion of empathy towards clients. “I think it breaks something. I think everyone wants to be accepted. Everyone wants to feel loved, feel part of a community and feel part of somewhere.”
Reflecting deeply between conversations, Yonny recounts a powerful message he heard once before, “I really loved what pastor Gary said, ‘just start with what you have in your hands.’ And for many years, well it took me 10 years to say, I just have my scissors and my kit, now what can I do? And after that, everything clicked into place.” Fulfilled, driven and not stopping any time soon, the hair specialist finally concludes, “Sometimes we think we need to have a platform, or we have to be on the stage to be able to impact or to do something but actually, God will use us anywhere we go.”
For more information on Greenlight and #Hair4Homeless, please visit hillsong.co.uk/greenlight