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Street Thug Barbers: free cuts and compassion

Meet the street barbers of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside

for CBC News

July 16, 2016

Street Thug Barbers  8:10

Ross Wilson was down on his luck. He was broke and sleeping on his mom's floor. One day, he was walking through Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. A man asked him for change.

"You've touched me in a positive way ... you've seen me and I don't feel invisible today. It makes me realize that there is hope. - Homeless man who was offered a haircut.

Wilson had none to give, but instead offered to cut the man's hair. 

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"The man cried," Wilson said. "And I thought, oh great, I've just made his life worse with the haircut."

"And he said, 'Oh, it's not the haircut. It's that you've touched me in a positive way and that you've seen me and I don't feel invisible today. It makes me realize that there is hope.'"

In that moment, Wilson thought that if humans just relied on each other instead of the bigger picture, we'd be in a better position. Wilson kept offering cuts on the street. First it was 10 people, and then 20, and then 30.

The movement grows

Three or four weeks later, Wilson met Cameron Sterling and Josh Malcolm, and it just snowballed from there.

They call themselves the Street Thug Barbers.

The master cutters spend off hours in parks, on sidewalks and down alleys offering their time to anyone who wants or needs a haircut.

Since August 2015, they've done close to 7,000 free cuts, and now feel like they are part of the community in a meaningful way.

Sterling started cutting hair while he was in jail years ago. It was his job inside, and it gave him purpose. Years later, he started hairdressing at a salon in Victoria. When he met Ross and heard the story, it just clicked that he too could give back.

Malcolm went to hairstyling school and moved to Vancouver from Alberta. He met Wilson and Sterling and wanted to join the effort and make a difference.

More than just haircuts

The Street Thugs say they do have an effect on the people they meet in more ways than just cutting their hair. They befriended an older woman named Marina who was coming to the Lookout Shelter.

Marina was being evicted from her apartment. She was sick, broke, and was saying she was going to kill herself rather than live on the street.

Wilson says they "made enough stink" in the community with calls to various services and landlords that someone came through with a place for her that she could afford.

"It's the best day of my week on Sunday when I cut hair on the street," Sterling said. "There's new stories we hear and we give out our number — it's neat."

​Now their plan includes an outreach program through Directions Youth Centre to get young people into the trade. 

They have a GoFundMe campaign they plan to use for new equipment for young cutters so they can more easily get into the business. They hope to one day open a teaching facility in the Downtown Eastside.

Malcolm says haircutters have a unique gift, being able to touch a person's head and listen to their stories as they make them look and feel better.

Watch the conversation between the Street Thug Barbers and Jason D'Souza on Our Vancouver.

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