A cut above the rest

Mayfair resident Joshua Santiago offers free haircuts to homeless people to boost their self-confidence.

A fresh look: Mayfair resident Joshua Santiago, 27, has created Empowering Cuts, where he offers free haircuts to people in need. He shaves the head of Bruce, who has lived at the heroin encampments in Kensington for the past month. LOGAN KRUM / TIMES PHOTO

Driving through the streets of Kensington, Joshua Santiago pulls his dark blue Jeep Compass to the curb near the intersection of Lehigh and Frankford avenues. Tents are pitched in the shade cast by an overhead bridge — this is where heroin encampments have been set up since last fall.

Santiago has spotted his next customer, a man named Bruce wearing a plain white T-shirt, his wispy chin hair tied together and styled with a band. Short but shaggy hair covers his head.

Getting out of his car, Santiago, a Mayfair resident, greets Bruce. Then he offers him a free haircut.

“Perfect timing,” Bruce says, easily taking him up on the offer. Santiago begins to retrieve his barber equipment from the trunk of his Jeep, which has a window marked with a decal reading “Empowering Cuts.”

Bruce likes to keep his head shaved, especially with summer beginning and the heat rising.

“Are you a real barber?” he asks as Joshua seats him in a stool and wraps him in an apron to catch the hair.

“I’m a real barber,” Santiago ensures him.

Not every real barber carries shavers, clippers, stools, aprons, tripods and filming equipment in the back of their vehicles, though. That’s part of what makes Santiago unique.

Looking and feeling their best: Joshua Santiago, who works professionally in a barbershop and also picks up shifts as an Uber driver, carries shavers, clippers, stools, aprons, tripods and filming equipment in his Jeep and regularly travels the city and beyond to give those in need free haircuts. LOGAN KRUM / TIMES PHOTO

He has been driving to all parts of the city to offer haircuts to people in need for about a year now as the founder of Empowering Cuts. His work is entirely volunteer and derived from his passion for helping people.

“A haircut means everything to someone who doesn’t see themselves in a mirror for a long amount of time,” said the 27-year-old in his Jeep, which doubles as his method of transportation as well as his base of operations.

“I had people who I cut before cry tears of joy because it’s uplifting,” he said. “It’s uplifting. It gives them the courage to feel as though they can conquer the world. Honestly, they feel as though they can do anything.”

By the end of the week, Bruce will be one of about 20 recipients of a free cut. For income, Santiago works professionally in a barbershop and picks up shifts as an Uber driver. But his schedule is blessed with flexibility, which allows him to perform what he feels is his true purpose.

As he cuts, Santiago listens to the story of each client. He asks them about their backstories and hopes for the future. For example, Bruce has been homeless for several years, and has taken shelter at Lehigh and Frankford for the past month — previously he had been at Lehigh and Emerald for about half a year.

That doesn’t mean he forfeited his vanity.

“Can you just make sure to keep this?” Bruce requested, fingering the banded whiskers on his chin.

Listening to their stories is something Santiago empathizes with, and is a key motivator for why Empowering Cuts exists in the first place.

A look in the mirror

Though Santiago himself never got involved in drugs, he grew up in a family very impacted by their presence. Both of his parents were addicts growing up, though his father, a functional addict, held custody of him and his brother.

“I was in and out of the streets a lot getting into trouble since a very young age,” he said.

He left his dad’s care as soon as he turned 18, but would unfortunately end up following his footsteps. In 2013, he was arrested and put behind bars for drug possession.

“I got full custody of my children, so at that time it was just me trying to find ways to make money, because my back was against the wall at the time,” he said. “Which is, you know, at a young age you do certain things that you regret so much.”

When he came home in 2014, the top bullet on his agenda was getting enrolled in barber school. He dreamed of being a barber since he was a kid. His dad cut his and his brother’s hair when they were young.

“He used to mess us up every time,” he laughed.

His brother, who was his role model, took over the hair cutting, building clientele who would come to the house.

“Everything my brother did was kind of what I did, so even when it came to getting in trouble I used to follow in his footsteps because that’s what he used to do,” he said.

Finally in a position to follow his dream and having found the motivation to do so, Santiago enrolled in the American Beauty Academy in Wilmington, Delaware. His commute could total up to four hours a day, but he was dead set on graduating the 14-month program.

Part of the program consisted of traveling to homeless shelters to cut hair. That’s where he got his first taste.

“I get more of a kick out of being able to bless somebody with a haircut than to actually receive money for it,” he said.

After graduating, he realized he didn’t want to give up that feeling. That’s why he created Empowering Cuts. Since the project came together, he has traveled to many cities to spread his passion.

But, there’s still a long way to go.

Self-driven

His Jeep may be a good base of operations now, but Santiago has ambitions that can’t be held in a vehicle of its size.

Santiago hopes to create a mobile barber shop in an RV that will be fully equipped with shampoo bowls, a wheelchair-accessible lift and all the comforts of a barbershop. He dreams of traveling to different cities and to “take on homelessness one haircut at a time.”

“The ultimate goal to Empowering Cuts is to bring more awareness to homelessness,” he said.

The idea of a mobile barbershop is a unique one, and stems from the fact that homelessness does not just exist in Philadelphia.

While building toward his goal, Santiago has worked with nonprofits such as Prevention Point and Chosen 300. He frequently spends weekends volunteering his services as various events throughout the city, giving what can be up to 70 or 80 haircuts a weekend.

If these events yield even a fraction of the appreciation he received under the bridge with Bruce, Santiago would be waterlogged with praise. As cars drove by and admired his work, many rolled down their windows or signaled to express appreciation. Lauren, who lives at the shelters, approached and made sure he knew he was a “beautiful, beautiful person.” For Santiago, the praise makes it worth it. His brother, Santiago’s childhood role model, has found himself in a situation akin to Bruce and Lauren.

“Hopefully, I can guide him back,” he said. “Now, it’s like I’m the big brother.”

Seeing Bruce rub his now smooth head and stroke his chin to ensure his whiskers were still there, it’s clear by the expression on his face the difference Santiago made is more than just skin deep.

Inner beauty is just as important. ••

Santiago has created a GoFundMe to help fund Empowering Cuts’ dream of creating a mobile barbershop. To learn more or donate, visit gf.me/u/cuj4a3. Follow Empowering Cuts on Instagram @EmpoweringCuts or Facebook facebook.com/Empoweringcuts