A similar initiative started by Jody Wood was created in the form of a mobile hair salon that visited Philadelphia this past summer. Wood swung through Philadelphia as an artist in residence at the Asian Arts Initiative, a community-based art center located in Chinatown North.
“Hair care is kind of seen as a non-essential need for people that are homeless,” Wood, creator of Beauty in Transition, said. “It’s an extra maybe even some people think is superfluous, but I’m interested in trying to resist in this process of losing one’s identity.”
Beauty In Transition launched in Lawrence, Kansas, in 2006, and has since traveled to Denver and New York City. Wood partners with various institutions and providers to create a mobile, outdoor beauty salon that serves homeless shelters throughout different cities.
It is an unexpected service, Wood says, driving to shelters around the country in a refurbished truck she purchased through Craigslist. Most of the stylists who volunteer their assistance are from trendy, “pop” hair salons.
A traveling salon catering to homeless clients may seem unorthodox, but a simple hairstyle can help an invisible person feel visible.
“In Philadelphia, shelters are not mandated by the city,” Wood says, “so you might not have a bed at night. In that daily struggle, you’re just thinking about how you’re going to feed yourself, how you are going to feed your family. A lot of parts of identity kind of recede and because people attach a label to homelessness, people will view you negatively and that hurts you more.”
Wood sees homelessness as a transitional state, not as a label — a difficult chapter in a person’s life that they hope to overcome one day, with the help of others who are willing to give.
That notion, of people willing to help others with a hand up, either materially or through human outreach such as Wood provides, seems to fit neatly into Pope Francis’ repeated urgings, during his visit to Cuba and the United States. “Serving others chiefly means caring for their vulnerability,” said the pope in Havana:
Caring for the vulnerable of our families, our society, our people. Theirs are the suffering, fragile and downcast faces which Jesus tells us specifically to look at and which he asks us to love. With a love which takes shape in our actions and decisions. With a love which finds expression in whatever tasks we, as citizens, are called to perform. People of flesh and blood, people with individual lives and stories, and with all their frailty: these are those whom Jesus asks us to protect, to care for, to serve. Being a Christian entails promoting the dignity of our brothers and sisters, fighting for it, living for it. That is why Christians are constantly called to set aside their own wishes and desires, their pursuit of power, and to look instead to those who are most vulnerable.
As the pope has often noted, this is sometimes easier said than done. We are conditioned, through our society, and in the prosperity of the West, to function in a self-interested manner. It’s not just a Philadelphia problem; it’s universal.
“Public attitude toward people who are homeless needs to change,” Wood said, adding that what is most important to realize is that housing is a human right — like water, food and air.
“I want to offer a service that will express your identity however you want,” Wood says. “And that’s how we express our identity, through our hair and our clothing. It’s a way of expressing our personality. It’s who we are. And that is a luxury that is unfortunately not afforded to everyone economically.”
Dominique “Peak” Johnson