Joe Kessler was amazed the day he learned that there was someone offering free haircuts to homeless individuals in Carroll County.
"I was like, really?" he said. "Someone wants to do this for us?"
That someone is Laura Reed, of Mount Airy, who has spent the past few years providing free haircuts to the homeless, including on a recent Monday outside Westminster United Methodist Church.
For Kessler, who had a job interview the day after he learned about Reed, it came not a moment too soon. "I wanted to look good," he said — not always an easy task when one is homeless and "couch jumping," as Kessler puts it. "I spend so much time just trying to find a place to sleep for the night," he said.
Reed, who works at Salon4 in Rockville and Rick's Chop Shop in Mount Airy, first began offering free haircuts at a women's shelter and then expanded to the streets. On any given day, she does not hesitate to whip out her ever-present, self-described "jump bag," with its sanitizer, combs, scissors, clippers, a mirror and cape, and provide haircuts impulsively on the streets.
Besides her frequent visits to Westminster, as well as Frederick County and Rockville, she has cut hair on the streets of Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Chicago. She does all of this on her days off.
"I feel that I have a great skill and trade that I can use to give back to others," she said.
In Westminster, she often cuts hair at On Our Own of Carroll County, a peer support wellness and recovery center, where a sign-up list is provided for those requesting her services. The list has been known to be full on her visits with dozens of names.
"What she does for us means a lot," said Kessler, a 28-year-old Westminster resident who once aspired to have a career in drafting and design. But that all changed when he developed a substance abuse problem, he said. Now he is attempting to get his life back on track.
For Reed, this is a personal mission. As a teenager Reed found herself displaced, with all of her belongings in a single paper bag. "I know that feeling of hopelessness," she said.
"There are people who wouldn't be able to get their hair cut if Laura didn't do it," said Laurie Galloway, executive director of On Our Own of Carroll County. "When you are down on your luck you feel bad enough about yourself, then to have someone like Laura who cares to come in and do something nice like this, well, it can make all the difference in the world."
This is evident as Reed worked under a big shady tree outside the downtown Westminster church and soup kitchen. "Are you ready for your hair cut today?" Reed asked as a man with a weather-beaten face took a seat. "You're going to love it," Reed continued as she began to cut the man's hair.
"I already do because I'm getting it cut," he replied.
On the streets Reed provides haircuts no matter the weather. "I tough it out because it's only a short amount of time for me, and they are the ones in the hot or cold, sometimes 24-7," she said. "I always remind myself of that."
Reed not only volunteers her time and talents, but gathers useful items, such as toiletries and clothing to hand out, with many donations coming from her salon clients. Undergarments are especially appreciated, she noted.
"I have met women who hold their bras together with safety pins or duct tape," she said. "I know one woman who used a bathing suit as underwear and a bra. She wore it every single day."
As she cut hair outside of the church, Reed spotted a couple standing nearby. "I'll be right back," she said, putting down her scissors. She returned minutes later from her truck, items in hand — a bag of donated beauty and hygiene supplies for the woman and a new, unopened tarp for the couple. The woman took a few items from the bag and leaves the rest for "someone else."
The couple live in a tent in the woods. "We got wet," said the man, taking the tarp and referring to the storms the night before. "We're glad to get this."
For many the idea of a haircut is a luxury. "If you have to choose between buying food or getting your hair cut, you are going to buy food," Galloway said.
For Reed, they are her clients, albeit not paying ones, and she treats them no differently than her usual clientele. She is eager to please.
"I have a short amount of time to prove myself," Reed said. "I need to convince them that I don't want anything. I just want to give you something. I want to do something nice for you."
She works hard to win their trust. And many tell her their stories. Friendships have been made. Reed said that she wants others to see these people as she sees them, as individuals. As such, she has created an Instagram account called Lauraonthestreet, posting before-and-after haircut photos and a brief description of each person.
"I need to do this. I will keep doing this, no matter what. It is so worth it," Reed said. "It's not about hair. It's about people."
And people like Kessler, the young man preparing for the job interview, are grateful.
"I went into that interview feeling good about myself," he said. And? "I got the job," he added, with a hint of self-satisfaction.
Interested in learning more about Laura Reed and her work with the homeless or would like to make a donation? Contact Reed at Lreedsalon4@gmail.com.
Excerpts from Laura Reed's Lauraonthestreet Instagram account
Chris works every day at McDonald's. No days off. Chris was a solider in the United States Army. He had to leave due to injury and was not provided enough help when he returned home so is now one of the many men who have fought for our country and is now homeless. He doesn't have any family members to help him which I find sadly common in homeless vets. He was beyond excited to get back his military style high and tight cut!
Aaron has been living in a tent with his wife for four years. He said he's had his tents stolen several times and his belongings stolen on multiple occasions. When I asked him what he would need to make his life a little more comfortable he said food. Food. Something we all take for granted sometimes.
When the next three people gave up their haircut spots for Mary, I knew she had to be special. Mary is deaf and walks with a cane. Her smile and her friendly spirit are absolutely contagious. She was so happy to have me cut her hair and when I took out the curling iron she stopped and grabbed my hands and mouthed thank you, thank you, thank you.
Carl is an American veteran of the United States Navy. He told me he is really struggling at this time. He's being evicted from his home and his mother in Florida is dying. Carl says he has to find a way to get down there and see her before she passes. I could feel the unbearable weight of his pain and anxiety. He was very relieved to get a free haircut, and I think after letting him talk and listening to him he felt a little better.
Latest Carroll County News
Awhile back at a women's shelter I painted Anna's nails. I'm not a nail artist and was there to cut hair but while I was cutting Anna's hair she commented she wished she had polish so her nails could look like mine. Of course being a girl and a hairdresser with a very large purse I just happen to have some color with me. She's been battered and abused by her boyfriend and has sought out refuge.