‘I’m never happier than when I’m in the thick of it, cutting hair and bringing smiles’ (Picture: Provided/Getty)
Welcome back to How I Made It, Metro.co.uk’s weekly career journey series.
This week, we’re chatting with Stewart Roberts, 61, from Essex, who set up Haircuts4Homeless – a charity that’s kept alive by a community of volunteer hairdresser and donations, helping those who are homeless.
Due to limited funds, a haircut simply isn’t a priority for many homeless individuals, so Stewart has made it his mission to take that worry out of their hands.
Plus, with low self-esteem being one of the many challenges homeless people face, these haircuts can help in more ways than one – and, crucially, reiterate that members of society care.
Now, almost a decade since its launch, Steward heads up this charity while also working as the co-founder of Sober Living Action Group.
Here’s how he made it happen.
When did you first get into hairdressing? What was your career path?
I left school in the summer of 1978 and three days later I started my apprenticeship in a salon in Stanford-Le-Hope, in Essex. I worked there for five years and then went freelance for another five years.
In 1988, I sold my home and bought a freehold building which I converted to a salon.
I ran that salon until 2004 when I converted the building into two flats – which I sold. Then using some of the proceeds, I took on a shop lease in nearby Corringham, which I converted into a salon and moved the business there.
Unfortunately, we had to close the doors 14 years later in 2018 after the landlord doubled the rent, which made the business no longer viable.
Many won’t prioritise a haircut with their limited money, so Stewart has sought out to take that worry out of their hands (Picture: BRANDstand Comms)
When did you start cutting the hair of homeless people?
I did my first session, cutting homeless people’s hair in November 2014. I was volunteering at a local Salvation Army in Romford, helping people with drug and alcohol addictions.
I’d seen a guy in America on Facebook cutting homeless people’s hair on the streets of New York and it really struck a chord with me.
So, I decided to take my kit the following week and that afternoon cutting hair changed the direction of the rest of my life.
I did this consistently and soon other hairdressers wanted to join me.
Then some other homeless centres contacted me to come along and I soon realised this was something that could be expanded.
We have subsequently opened more than 80 projects across the UK and Ireland, recruited over 600 volunteers, and have given over 50,000 free haircuts.
‘My salary has taken a large hit, but the rewards of doing this far outweigh any material loss’ (Picture: Haircuts4Homeless)
How do you approach people and offer your services?
We purposely collaborate with homeless centres, rather that work on the streets, in order to keep our volunteers safe.
Once we set up a project, we appoint a local hairdresser/barber as team leader then revisit once a month for a two-hour session. This way our guests can rely on us as a consistent service.
Has this become your full-time work?
This has become my full-time work and will be for the rest of my life.
With our volunteers, we only ask them to give two hours a month, which we believe is sustainable.
Our volunteers find it a very rewarding experience and some are still with us from the beginning.
It’s close to Stewart’s heart (Picture: Haircuts4Homeless)
Doing this full-time, has your salary taken a hit?
Yes, quite a large one but the rewards far outweigh any material loss.
Being sober and in recovery myself, it’s crucial to help others to maintain sobriety. I am happy that I have a good balance in my life.
What’s the most memorable experience you’ve had doing this work?
I have had so many positive experiences with Haircuts4Homeless it’s hard to pick out one.
The ones that stay with me the most are when we work with women who have been through domestic violence and we can give them some respect and TLC.
It’s something close to my heart. One of my daughters went through it and I know how devastating it can be.
An average day in the working life of Stewart Roberts:
Stewart says: ‘My average week is Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday travelling the UK opening and revisiting projects.
‘Thursday and Friday catching up with the ever increasing admin needed to keep the charity going and growing.’
Haircuts4Homeless has grown dramatically (Picture: Haircuts4Homeless)
What do you love most about your work?
Being able to help others and be a reliable consistent resource for them.
My goal for Haircuts4Homeless is to outgrow me and be here long after I’m gone.
I love our guests and am never happier than when I’m in the thick of it, cutting hair and bringing smiles.
What do you dislike the most?
What I find most disappointing about working with the homeless is that, year after year, the problem is getting so much worse.
With the economic climate, rents rising, and a lack of affordable housing, we are seeing more families becoming homeless.
Instead of being disillusioned, we have to accept that we can only do our best to help one person at a time and give them the best of us.
Do you have a story to share?
Get in touch by emailing [email protected].
‘My salary has taken a large hit, but the rewards of doing this far outweigh any material loss.’