A Hairstylist Provides Free Cuts to the Homeless

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Mark Bustos works at a salon in Chelsea during the week. On Sundays, he gives homeless men haircuts.

David Terry is 50 years old, H.I.V. positive and homeless. He spends his nights at Bailey House, a nonprofit in Harlem that provides housing for people living with H.I.V., and his days wandering the streets. “I get very depressed because it’s like I’m on the treadmill going 80 miles an hour with the brakes on,” he said.

But for one hour the other Sunday, life slowed down to a happy pace. Sitting on a park bench on the corner of East Houston and Chrystie Streets, Mr. Terry was getting a haircut from Mark Bustos, a professional stylist with a celebrity clientele.

“Can you believe this is happening?” Mr. Terry said, a white bib wrapped around his neck, cigarette in hand and Stevie Wonder’s “Conversation Peace” playing in the background. An hour later, he looked in the mirror, and saw that his messy mop was now a stylish flattop. “Yeah, baby, I’ve still got it,” he said, striking a victory pose. “I’m the king of the world.”

Every Sunday, Mark Bustos, 30, a hairstylist at Three Squares Studios, an elite salon in Chelsea that charges $150 to clients like Norah Jones, Marc Jacobs and Phillip Lim, hits the sidewalk and provides free cuts to the homeless.

Mr. Bustos often wanders around Union Square, the Lower East Side and Midtown, where he has gotten to know some of the homeless by name. “See that guy over there,” he said, walking down the Bowery. “That’s Cowboy Ritchie,” whose wife, Mr. Bustos added, “wants him to shave his beard off because it looks too good and the other women flirt with him.”

Other times, Mr. Bustos meets his unsuspecting new clients through friends and paying clients, who tell him about people in their neighborhoods. He does up to 10 haircuts a day.

He started offering haircuts to the homeless two years ago. The idea, he says, is to simply give back. “Whether I’m giving one at work or on the street, I think we can all relate to the haircut and how it makes us feel,” Mr. Bustos said. “We all know what it feels like to get a good haircut.”

In some way, Mr. Bustos, who lives in Jersey City, has always been generous about hairstyling, which he taught himself at a young age. When he was 14, Mr. Bustos set up a chair in his parents’ garage in Nutley, N.J., and cut friends’ hair for free, so they could pocket the barbershop money they got from their parents.

A 2012 trip to the Philippines to visit family made him realize he could do more. He was struck by the number of impoverished children and decided to rent a barbershop as his way of helping. “It made me feel so good,” Mr. Bustos said. “It was right to bring it home to New York.” Since then, he has spent most Sundays in New York, styling the hair of the homeless.

Mary E. Brosnahan, the president and chief executive of Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit advocacy group, said that a haircut is often more than a haircut. It can remind the homeless of who they once were, and offer a rosier version of their current, shattered selves. “It helps shift the gear out of survival mode,” Ms. Brosnahan said, letting them envision a better life.

Joi Gordon, the chief executive officer of Dress for Success, which provides professional clothes to homeless job seekers, has similar stories of transformation. “For most women, this is the first time that they’ve ever put on a suit in their lives,” she said. “That blazer really serves as a life jacket.”

Mr. Bustos tells a similar story of a homeless man who once looked in the mirror after a haircut, saw his fresh look and said: “Do you know anyone who is hiring. I’m ready to go get a job.” Mr. Bustos hasn’t seen him on the street since, something he considers a good sign.

His haircuts are always conducted on the street. If a park bench is not available, Mr. Bustos will find a milk crate or turn over a shopping cart. Rain or freezing temperatures do not deter him. (Since many homeless do not have regular access to washrooms, Mr. Bustos wears gloves, carefully disposes of hair clippings and disinfects his tools between every cut, just as he does with his equipment at work.)

“I do it on the streets, on the sidewalks, in the parks,” he said, “so people who walk by can find some inspiration in what I do.”

That is the same reason that Devin Masga, a street photographer, accompanies him and posts before-and-after photos to Mr. Bustos’sInstagram feed with the hashtag #BeAwesomeToSomebody. Mr. Bustos has more than 215,000 Instagram followers, some of whom donate supplies and gift cards, or ask how they can get help. “People ask me if I can come out with you or join your team,” he said. “My answer is just go and do it.”

“Just because they live on the street looking a little scruffy with their hair long doesn’t mean they can’t clean up and look great,” he added.

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