Small acts of kindness can change the world
Hairdresser Joshua Coombes travels all over the world starting conversations with homeless people through the simple act of a hair cut. His work sparked a global movement, #DoSomethingForNothing, which featured in Captain Fawcett’s Quintessential Grooming Guide for the Modern Gentleman. 5 years on, Fawcett Times correspondent Cate caught up with Joshua to find out about his own book and new Crowdfunder campaign.
“#DoSomethingForNothing isn’t a charity,” says Joshua, “it’s a way for people to express this feeling of wanting to connect. It wasn’t a conscious decision, I just tagged a space that always existed.”
In an individualistic world, Joshua believes the most valuable thing we have to share is our time. “There’s nothing wrong with money or success but #DoSomethingForNothing represents another part of yourself it’s important to connect with. We’re told all the time that owning certain things will make you feel good. But oftentimes they don’t so it’s really important to build connections with other humans.”
Back in 2015, Joshua was working in a London hair salon. Sometimes he’d give a bit of money to someone sleeping in a doorway, maybe buy them a cup of tea. But he never had time to really connect. One evening on the way to a friend’s, he realised he had his tools with him, so he offered to cut the hair of a man living on the street. “I hadn’t really thought about it,” says Joshua, “but cutting hair was a way to listen.”
The bustle of the streets offers unexpected privacy, Joshua explains. “Everyone’s rushing, not paying attention, so it allows for a deeper conversation. In a salon people might worry about being overheard. But in the middle of all the street noise, you get closer to the truth of people’s lives.”
Fawcett Times readers know that Captain Fawcett supports the Lions Barbers, who train hairstylists to recognise possible signs of depression in their clients. Joshua sees the value of having regular contact with the same barber, saying “We all have these layers for self-defence. It takes time to let people in and be vulnerable. If I’m looking after someone’s hair, I’m not looking directly at them. It’s less confrontational so it does allow a kind of heart-opening. I think that’s a really important part of the role we have to play as hairdressers.”
Now Joshua is officially self-employed as a public speaker, paid for talking to schools, brands, agencies and businesses about his work, which enables him to keep cutting hair for free, ever curious about the lives of people he meets. Although people end up on the street for all kinds of reasons there are commons threads running through the stories they share. Joshua hears about growing up in abusive families, domestic violence and people who owned a business that went wrong. “We need to see this as a collective problem,” he says “because honestly a lot of it is just about luck.”
It’s hard not to feel fatigued by the world’s pain, as Joshua acknowledges. “You have your own problems too so you need the balance of being kind to yourself, switching off and getting above the noise. It replenishes the energy to want to get up and do something.” Joshua stays motivated by maintaining a healthy anger. “Actually it’s more a sort of healthy pissed-off-ness,” he remarks jokingly. “As one person you really can make a difference. There are small steps you can make each day to have a positive impact. That’s a mantra I try to keep in my head. And it’s never really for nothing because you get something from it too.”
One thing that pisses him off is the media using phrases like ‘the homeless’. Joshua expresses it as ‘people experiencing homelessness’ because words are important. He says “Being unsheltered isn’t innate, it’s a transient state, or that’s the hope. Anything you can do to humanise this situation matters.”
He goes on, “We all know good people who are suffering, someone who’s lost, who grieves, who’s had something tragic happen. There’s no avoiding that part of life. But I think maybe we need to get better at sitting with that and to care for one another in those moments. Not to think we have to fix everyone’s problems but just to listen so we work through them together.
“If life goes wrong,” he asks, “how would you want your own kin and your own friends to be treated? How you would want to be treated? That’s where to start.”
To close, Joshua has a few words for one of his old pals, Fawcett Ambassador Matt Spracklen. “Matt and I used to party together and do things I can’t talk about right now,” he says, laughing. “Matt’s amazing because he’s been part of this since the start. We’ve been incredible friends for too many years to count. His photography is fantastic, it took documenting this to another level. I’ll be forever grateful to him for that.”
Now that’s the quintessence of a modern gentleman!
In February 2022 Joshua launched his first campaign via Crowdfunder in partnership with Change Please, an organisation that works with people previously homeless or currently experiencing homelessness to give them pathways to employment. Joshua says “This is about getting a solid fund together so I can take it beyond a conversation on the street. It’s about being there in a practical way with whatever someone might need, like food or a night in a safe shelter.”
You can also buy Joshua’s book Do Something For Nothing. It’s about survival, optimism and the transformative power of compassion. Full of poignant, uplifting images and the stories from the street told in people’s own words. Joshua says “I’m just a conduit for these lovely human beings from all different walks of life. You meet people in the book who are really all of us. They echo themes that affect all our lives. I just hope it removes this notion of ‘the homeless’ and returns our focus to unique humans beings. And to having that conversation.”
100% of Joshua’s proceeds go to organisations dedicated to assisting unsheltered people.
As well as the Lions Barbers, Captain Fawcett supports The Purfleet Trust, a night shelter in King’s Lynn. There’s probably something similar near you. Or you can #DoSomethingForNothing by contributing your skills and time to those who need it.
As actor Morgan Freeman commented: “Joshua Coombes believes that small acts of love can make a big impact.”
Huzzah to that! Everyone can #DoSomethingForNothing.