Ezekiel is on his way to retrieve clothes he left drying on the porch of an abandoned house in Baltimore. “With all this rain, they were pretty wet,” he says. But on his way there he finds an unexpected offer — a free haircut. It’s a rare treat for the 44-year-old homeless man. And he is delighted. “All you need sometimes is to see people care,” he says.
Laura Reed, a hairstylist from Mount Airy provides the free haircuts to the homeless and others in need, whether they be in Carroll or Frederick counties, Baltimore or as far away as Philadelphia. And she will tell you, “It’s not about hair. It’s about people.”
People like Ezekiel, who explains he is homeless “due to bad luck. Just bad luck,” he says. “I’m not lazy. I have had plenty of jobs. Sometimes it’s just bad luck.”
A tall, lanky man with short dreadlocks and a warm smile, he says he stayed at a homeless shelter the night before, but often sleeps “on random porches, at bus stops, anywhere I can get some sleep. I’m doing what I can to survive,” he says.
Others taking advantage of Reed’s offer are not homeless, but are trying to make ends meet and just barely getting by. “There are a lot of people just struggling,” Reed says. “People that are right on the cusp.” And paying for a haircut is not always a high priority.
“If you have to choose between buying food or getting your hair cut, you are going to buy food,” says Laurie Galloway, executive director of On Our Own of Carroll County, a peer support wellness and recovery center, where Reed often cuts hair for free.
Reed, who cuts hair at both 4&Co. Salon in Rockville and Rick’s Chop Shop in Mount Airy, has been cutting and styling hair for 23 years. She first began offering free haircuts at a women’s shelter several years ago. For her it is personal. As a teenager, Reed herself was displaced, with all her belongings in a single paper bag.
“I can relate to that feeling of hopelessness,” she says.
From the women’s shelter she has gone on to offering free haircuts on the street. In her vehicle and always at the ready is her “jump bag,” which contains sanitizer, combs, scissors, clippers, a mirror and cape. She says that she has provided thousands of free hair cuts in the last few years, all on her days off. “I don’t have a lot of money to give,” she says. “But I am very blessed that I have a talent and a trade and all it takes is my time. I can always make time.”
Reed not only provides haircuts but also brings food and toiletries to hand out, from granola bars to shampoo. Some are donations from her salon clients. Others come out of her own pocket. And, with her Instagram account, @lauraonthestreet, she shares the stories of those she meets complete with before-and-after-haircut photos, hoping to encourage a better understanding of the homeless and those in need.
“These people are used to being treated the same, day in and day out, being overlooked,” Reed says. “For them to see someone help them instead of ignoring them, that’s huge.”
Reed doesn’t judge, Galloway says. “She treats everyone with dignity and respect.”
After setting up her make-shift salon at a grassy lot on the corner of North Avenue and Charles Street, Reed does not lack for interested participants. One of the first is 66-year-old James. A diabetic who has just had foot surgery, James has a doctor’s appointment later that afternoon. When he hears that Reed is offering free haircuts, he says, “I need one right now.”
James has lived in Baltimore for 50 years after moving from North Carolina and still speaks with a hint of an accent. He was a state employee and is now on a limited income. “I haven’t been to a barber in so long,” he says, adding that he often relies on a neighbor to cut his hair. “I feel like a rich man,” he says with a grin.
That day James not only receives a haircut but even gets his eyebrows and mustache trimmed. Once done, Reed hands him a mirror. “Hey there!” he says back to his reflection. Then turning to Reed says, “You did all right.”
Despite the location and circumstances of Reed’s make-shift salon, there is a sense of normalcy, even camaraderie, and a respite from the challenges of the day, financial and otherwise. Cuppie, Monica, Sharon and Pippy, all in their 50s and 60s, gather and wait their turn with Reed. “It’s good to know there are still good people in the world,” Monica says. “I usually can’t afford it (a haircut). So, I have do it myself or get a friend to do it. So, yeah, this is real good.”
Like any other friends enjoying an outing at the beauty salon, the women giggle and gossip.
A nice haircut and a boost in self- esteem can go a long way. Reed says that she has had individuals who have contacted her after meeting them on the streets and cutting their hair. “They track me down on Facebook or Instagram,” she says. “They want to thank me.” Some of them have gone on to better lives. “They deserve a fighting chance,” she says of the people she meets.
Later, as the day ends and her hair clipper is “running out of juice,” she makes time for one last client, Karen. Karen wants a haircut but is not open to conversation when she first sits down. Not to be deterred, Reed asks Karen about herself. Sometimes all it takes is a kind word, a listening ear, a gentle touch as she cuts someone’s hair to put them at ease, Reed points out. “Cutting someone’s hair is a very personal thing,” she says.
Before long, Karen opens up and shares with Reed that her mother has just had a stroke and is in the hospital. “I’m so worried about her,” Karen says softly.
Slowly, though, the conversation becomes more upbeat as Karen confides to Laura that “I was a cosmetologist for 26 years,” she says. The women bond over their shared experiences and the mood lightens.
Finally, Reed holds up the mirror for Karen. Karen tilts her head and smiles coquettishly at her reflection. From one hairdresser to another, Reed wants to know, what does Karen think?
Karen nods her head in approval. “I trust you,” she says to Reed. “I trust you.”