November 11, 2012

A Nonprofit Offers Homeless Clients Free Haircuts—and Pride

Allstate Insurance Company

When Robert Cradle graduated from barber school, he knew he wanted to start his own shop in his native Baltimore, but he never imagined he’d end up running multiple establishments—especially ones where the haircuts are free.

But 10 years after he opened Rob’s Barbershop in Odenton, Md., to serve Army soldiers stationed at nearby Fort Meade, Mr. Cradle says, he started to think about making a change. Then the director of a homeless shelter that had recently opened just a few blocks away came in for a haircut.

“He mentioned that many of the residents couldn’t afford haircuts or even regular grooming, and the light bulb went off,” says Mr. Cradle, who then put up a donation box marked “Haircuts for the Homeless.” He used whatever money customers dropped into the slot to pay his barbers to go to the shelter and give haircuts, or on slow days he would invite the residents to come into his shop.

By 2002, Mr. Cradle was grooming about 150 customers free each year and sending his barbers to several area homeless shelters. Realizing that he wanted to do even more, he sold his shop and used the proceeds to start Rob’s Barbershop Community Foundation.

The charity’s mission is not simply free haircuts. Mr. Cradle, now managing director of the foundation, works to build permanent salon facilities in homeless shelters and other organizations that serve the needy. So far, he has raised the money and managed the construction of four shops.

“When I used to send a barber someplace, often there wasn’t a good place for them to work. If the homeless or out-of-work came to me, well, you can only fit so many people in a car to transport them,” he explains. “When I came up with the idea of building on-site facilities, our ability to serve skyrocketed. Within one year we were able to serve 10 times as many people.”

The charity’s budget for 2012 is $130,000. About 40 percent of the charity’s revenue comes from foundation grants, says Mr. Cradle, and nearly as much from fees for its services. Some shelters pay the charity for the grooming services, while community groups often finance back-to-school haircut days and other events that help generate revenue. Most of the rest comes from individuals.

Mr. Cradle says that as a barber, he deals in self-esteem for all clients, and even more so for his homeless ones: “At a time when they are struggling to find their place in the world, helping people to look good on the outside can help them even more on the inside, to feel some confidence.”

Here, Mr. Cradle shows a client his new haircut, at the Light House homeless shelter in Annapolis, Md.