Rolling Barber proves the power of a haircut for the homeless

The not-for-profit Rolling Barber officially launched this weekend, offering haircuts to marginalized Ottawans inside a retrofitted school bus.

It's a luxury that's out of reach for many people in Ottawa, says founder Anne Donovan

Patrick Ethier gets a haircut from Christopher Lord inside the Rolling Barber bus. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

For the first time in five years, Lynn Kelly is looking into a mirror, describing what kind of haircut she'd prefer. 

"I want it evened out, because I snipped it myself and I don't think it's even at all," Kelly tells the barber inside the retrofitted school bus, settling down into a chair far too large for her slight frame. 

The inside of the Rolling Barber is brand new and cozy.

There's a small waiting area where people can enjoy a coffee on one end, a hairwashing sink at the other and two cutting stations complete with large mirrors and barber chairs in between. 

Lynn Kelly says this was her first proper haircut in five years. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

"I feel spoiled and pampered," Kelly says. "[The haircut] is amazing. It's something you forget about, once you're on the street. You don't even think. A lot of people don't comb their hair.

"This is just such a special treat." 

A way to 'do more'

The idea to create a barbershop on wheels for marginalized people came to Anne Donovan when she was working as an associate registrar at the University of Ottawa.

"Every lunch hour, I would come out, walk around, and always see people on the streets and in need of some comfort," Donovan tells CBC News on Sunday.

"I would give a sandwich, I would offer coffee, give a cup of coffee. But I always thought [that] I want to do more." 

Founder Anne Donvan (left) and director of communications Francois Thibeault stand outside the Rolling Barber bus on Sunday, July 22, 2018. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

After 21 years at the university, Donovan saw her chance to make a difference. She left the job to work at home, freeing up time to devote to her dream.

After consulting a few shelters, she said she discovered there was a need for haircuts and for someone to bring "not only the barbers, but the shop itself." 

"We can actually get to some places where the people can't move around or get very far," she says. 

Haircuts go beyond the homeless population

Each Sunday, the Rolling Barber plans to move to a different downtown location and offer free haircuts to a new group of people in need, from the homeless to women fleeing domestic abuse to newly released convicts living in halfway houses. 

"A lot of people will say, it's only for the homeless. No, it's not. It's really for anyone," Donovan says.

"We have people that actually have jobs but work at minimum wage. And for them, paying $30, $40 for a haircut is not really within their means. They will choose to put the money on food or put the money on their lodgings."

We cut his hair ... afterwards he came to me and said 'You saved my job.'- Anne Donovan

This past Sunday was the not-for-profit's official launch on Daly Avenue, outside Centre 454 and just a few blocks from the Ottawa Mission.

It didn't take long to see the need was real. 

Within 20 minutes of opening, more than 20 people had signed up for a cut. By the end of the day, 28 people had a fresh haircut or trimmed beard.

The retrofitted Rolling Barber bus has two chairs, a hairwashing sink and coffee station. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

But even before the Rolling Barber's launch, people clamoured to get the service — including a man who'd been living out of his car for weeks and wanted to look nice for a job interview. 

Another man had a job, but had been told multiple times to get a haircut.

"We cut his hair, and so on, and afterwards he came to me and said 'You saved my job,'" Donovan says.

'It makes you feel ... like you count'

Of course, a salon aboard a retrofitted school bus is hardly the height of luxury. During its first two hours, it blew a fuse twice.

"So, the water is not hot. We only get one temperature," warns volunteer Kathy Morgan, as Kelly rests her head in the large hairwashing sink. 

"We're homeless people," Kelly replies. "We don't mind."

It makes it feel like you are someone, like you count.- Lynn Kelly

As Morgan works shampoo into her scalp, Kelly expands on her story, recounting her years on the street, her separation from her family, and her inability to keep up with her cancer treatment. 

"I never thought I'd be here, ever," she says. "It's like, once it starts, you're just stuck in a spiral that never ends."

Asked if something as simple as a haircut can make a difference, tears fill her eyes.

"This is wonderful. These things are wonderful," Kelly says. "It makes it feel like you are someone, like you count."