“There are so many obstacles to overcome and I can’t…present myself the way I want to.”
“It helps to get the dirt off, get the shovel off the grave and you sort of feel better.”
“It restored my self esteem. It gave me a little more hope that I could get through this.”
“It puts some hope there, something other than being inside, somebody’s helping you and making you feel normal.”
“I can at least appear who I once was.”
Those are the the voices of some of the clients of Beauty in Transition, an art project begun by Jody Wood in 2006 that gives haircuts to homeless people. Through arts funding and grants, Wood brings her a mobile hair salon in a van with volunteer stylists to shelters and offers people the chance for a free cut, style, and makeup.
“It’s such a small gesture you wouldn’t really think it would have such an emotional impact,” Wood said. But as the reactions from her clients show, a small thing like a haircut can mean a lot to someone who is coping with the chaos of living in a shelter. “There’s this…feeling of stasis when you’re homeless, waiting for things to happen…waiting for life to start again,” she said. “The simplest thing like a hairstyle or a haircut is just that lift to make you feel like your life is moving again.”
“I’ve also had people that expressed to me that it’s reconnected them with who they used to be,” she added. “They see themselves in the mirror and say, ‘This is reminding me of who I used to be and who I want to become.’’
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Wood began Beauty in Transition in Lawrence, Kansas while she was a graduate student and has since taken it to Denver, Colorado; Philadelphia and Reading, Pennsylvania; and New York City. As a visual artist, she’s explored transitional times in people’s lives: death, trauma, aging, and loss, such as the loss of a home. “My practice has been concerned with social support systems and a lack of systems during transitional moments,” she said. “I really want to rethink those social structures surrounding tradition through art.”
Her project aims to break down the stigma homeless people face through the face-to-face contact of a haircut. “Homelessness is already such a struggle, and instead of people coming to your aid people judge you,” she noted. She also pointed out that many people feel that the homeless should only be given the bare necessities to survive. Haircuts, she said, aren’t “seen as an essential need, but that’s part of why we’re not treating the homeless with dignity… Humans have a lot of desires and needs beyond just physical needs.”
Other organizations have worked on the same issue in other ways, many by starting mobile shower and laundry units to help the homeless get clean in a private setting. New Mexico has considered turning its buses into shower units.
There is also a practical consideration, of course, of giving someone a haircut. That can help them look their best and feel confident for, say, a job interview or an appointment. But Wood wants to resist the idea of giving haircuts just for those narrow aims. “I actually want the project to be very open-ended and for people to use it however they want,” she said. She noted that a lot of life inside a shelter is structured and full of mandated activities. Her project “gives someone the dignity of having a choice of how to use it,” she said. It can be “just for yourself, something you do just to take care of yourself and not meet those requirements.”
When she first arrives at a shelter, she said the first people to sign up are the most outgoing. But word quickly spreads. She describes the mood inside the van as “celebratory,” transforming people’s mood and even the way they carry themselves. Once others see that happen, everyone wants in. “It’s been really popular,” she said. “I’ll have so many people sign up that I can’t even get to everyone.”
The next step for Beauty in Transition will be taking over a vacant storefront in the more rural area of Kingston, New York and working with local shelters to transport their clients to the pop up location. That iteration will explore rural homelessness as well as prove “the project can be replicated really anywhere there’s space for it,” she said.