Laura Faehner Reed, Making a Difference with Haircuts for the Homeless.
Many ‘clients’ of so-called “tough love” programs have not only survived their ordeals but have also used their life experiences to drive them forward to shape society in positive ways. Laura Faehner Reed is one such person.
What made you decide to provide haircuts for homeless people?
Reed: I have done hair for the past twenty years, and I love it. When I moved to a different salon several years ago, I was slow because I was waiting for my clients to follow me. In the meantime, I had to do figure out something else to do with my time.
When I started to look through a magazine, I spotted an ad for a place that houses kids with special needs. I decided to offer to free haircuts for the children at this home. I know how difficult it can be to take special needs kids to get a haircut because both of my kids have Tourette’s Syndrome. People look at them, and the kids feel like they are different.
The following day, I met with the director of the children’s home to discuss my proposal. He surprised me when his first question to me was, “What do you want and why are you doing this?” However, I just told him, “I’m doing it because I have some extra time right now.” He asked, “Do you want to get paid?” I explained to him that I had kids with special needs so I would like to give back. Then he told me, “Well, you can’t wear what you are wearing. You can’t wear those earrings because it distracts the kids.” I said I’d wear all yellow if he wanted me to. I just wanted to be able to help the children, because I know how even getting a haircut can be difficult for them. I thought it would be nice for them to have someone come into their environment to give them a free haircut.
The director asked me, “What do you want and why are you doing this?”
I assume he didn’t get it because he never called me back. I called him two weeks later, but he never returned my phone call. I was beyond livid. I couldn’t have presented myself in a more professional manner to this gentleman. It was just crazy–like he just didn’t trust me. He couldn’t understand that someone was trying to do something nice without any money.
A couple of days later I called a woman’s shelter. I said, “My name is Laura, I have down time…” and they said, “Well, this Saturday we have an event, can you do nails?” I hadn’t done nails since the state board, I mean I do my nails, but I don’t usually do nails in my profession. I said, “Sure! I can do nails.” It wasn’t what I wanted, but I knew it was my ‘in.’
The following Saturday, I brought my stuff, did the ladies’ nails, and the woman in charge loved me. She said, “Oh my gosh, this was great! You helped these women feel so good.” I said, “Well, can I come back and do haircuts?” She said, “Sure! No problem.” So I started doing haircuts there once a week.
It felt so extraordinary to be able to do that, that I started trying to branch out to do a little bit more.
So many shelters had turned me down for various reasons. The reasons they gave made perfect sense. The shelter for abused women couldn’t take advantage of my offer due to safety concerns for the women. I get that, I do, but was discouraging because I just felt like I was always jumping through hoops.
Then one day I saw an interview with this hairdresser, Mark Bustos, in New York. On his days off he cuts hair for the homeless out on the street. I was so excited because I knew I could do this and I wouldn’t have to ask anybody for permission. I could just go out and offer free haircuts.
The following morning I bought some cordless clippers and trimmers. Then I went out to Westminster, Maryland near my house. I’m cautious with whom I approach, but I saw these two guys and I could kind of tell that they were in need. So I walked up to them, and I used my own words to say something like what Mark Bustos says to the people he reaches out to. I was nervous, but I went up to them and said, “Hi, my name is Laura, I’m a hairdresser, and it’s my day off. I offer free haircuts to those who are in need, and I was just wondering if you needed a haircut. When they said, “Sure!” I was nervous, excited and relieved all at the same time.
That was about six years ago, but even today when someone I approach says yes to me, I start shaking. I get nervous because while I am a ‘people-person,’ I am not a ‘crowd-person.’ Each time I do this, it causes the same reaction. As soon as I get the person to sit down, I put a cape on them and start getting out my things; a crowd begins to form. People walk by and see that something unusual is happening, and they stop to watch.
I’ve done this in a variety of places including on the streets of New York City, and it is always the same. People stop to watch. If I were to look up and see a massive crowd watching, I would have an anxiety attack. So I just focus on what I am doing. I put the cape on the person, start combing their hair, and start talking to them. I start cutting in the back because I don’t want this person to see my hands shaking. It takes me about seven minutes per person to stop trembling (I’ve clocked it). After that point, I calm down, I can flow with it, and everything is good. There have been times when people have taken videos of me doing this. When I review the videos, I can’t believe how many people are actually looking at me. I am always thankful that I didn’t look up.
My nervousness begins to fade as I lose myself in what I’m doing. I focus on this person who has allowed me into their life, to touch them and to talk to them. Some of these people haven’t been spoken to or even acknowledged in weeks. These individuals are destitute. They are people who don’t want to go to shelters because they don’t trust the shelters. They are isolated because they have been on the streets for so long that they don’t trust anybody.
I focus on this person who has allowed me into their life, to touch them and to talk to them.
Before I approach anyone, I usually watch them for a few minutes without them realizing it. I wait to see their mannerisms, how they are acting, and to get a feel for what’s going on with them. I don’t want to walk into a situation that I am not comfortable with or that they may not be comfortable with.
When I start talking to them, they don’t understand what I am doing. Some people say yes to me right away; others don’t. When I first approach a person, I kneel to get down to their eye-level, say hello and give them an apple. I say, “My name is Laura, today is my day off from work. How are you doing?” They usually say, “Good,” then just kind of look at me. Often, I have to talk with them for a while, but they usually say yes.
There was one time when I was in Chicago when I went up to this one guy to introduce myself. The whole time I was talking, he was nodding his head and when I said, “Do you need a haircut?” He responded with an enthusiastic and immediate “Yes!” It happened in one minute, but that is more of the exception than the rule.
Do the people you approach ever ask why you are doing this?
Reed: If they ask me why I’m doing this I usually tell them because I know what it’s like to be at the bottom of the barrel. I know what it’s like to be afraid and scared and to not have anyone to turn it. I do know that feeling well from earlier experiences in life and when they hear that, they understand. It is easy for me to connect with them.
Once I told a person, “I remember what it was like to live out of a paper bag with my name on it.” There was a time when that was all I had. I had shelter, but it was in no way a safe atmosphere and I would have rather been out on the streets. These homeless people are in a terrible situation. They are afraid half the time, and anything could happen, but at least they have their freedom. I did not have that. Even though I had nothing and no one, I also didn’t have my freedom. Luckily they have their freedom and by offering them a haircut, I can give them back some of their dignity. It also affords me the opportunity to talk to them, ask them questions and most important, listen to them.
I remember what it was like to live out of a paper bag with my name on it.
Most people want to talk. They just pour out everything that is on their mind. I have my entire Instagram account #LauraOntheStreet dedicated to sharing these stories. They are the stories of people that nobody will listen to. I usually ask the person, “Do you mind if I take your picture?” If they say yes, then I’m good. If they said “Ok, as long as you don’t get my face,” I tell them no problem. Then I’ll take a picture of the side or the back of their hair. Sometimes I just photograph the hair that has fallen to the floor. Then I’ll put a caption on the picture and tell their story.
When I leave that person, I leave him or her feeling better than they’ve felt in a long time. And this costs me nothing but a little bit of time. It is so worth it. I feel like I’ve made somebody happier. It is the best feeling in the world to be able to connect with someone in that way. I love doing this work; it is incredibly powerful.
Is there any one category of people you find among the homeless more than another?
Reed: No. Homelessness isn’t picky. It can happen to anyone. I have met men, women, and children of all ages and races. But it does seem that our society as a whole has stereotyped the homeless. I even remember as a kid, when we would pass a homeless person my dad would say, “Oh that’s just a bum. He’s just trying to get money for alcohol.”
Moya: What are some of the ways you’ve heard that people end up homeless?
Reed: First, we are all only a step away from homelessness. It could happen to any one of us. A lot of people think that homeless people are just people with drug or alcohol problems. Sure, some of them are, but it seems that family is a big thing. Many people have not gotten along with their families, and they just don’t have anyone to fall back on. They have had a catastrophic incident occur in their lives and when there is no one to turn to this is what happens.
It’s funny because people often ask me, “Aren’t they dirty? Don’t you come across some dirty hair?” I will tell you this. The dirtiest people that I have met have sat in my salon chair and spent $300.00 on a color and cut. Just two weeks ago a woman came in and her hair was wet. I asked her, “Did you just get out of the shower?” She said, “No, I just played two hours of tennis.” She was sweaty. She smelled bad. Her breath smelled. It was unbelievable. She was dirtier than any homeless person I have ever come across. You have to be careful before you judge people because you never know.
Moya: Is there any man, women or child that particularly stands out in your memory?
Reed: There are so many that stand out, but recently I just did an event in Frederick, Maryland. I was cutting hair for families in need at a local shelter. There was one little girl, who was there with her mother and three brothers. I gave haircuts to the entire family. The kids didn’t look good. They look malnourished; they had bags under their eyes, and they just didn’t look healthy. Before the little girl left, she hugged me, and she had her face buried in my stomach. She was hugging me so tight, and she wouldn’t let go. I had to take her little arms from my waist and take her off of me, but she didn’t want to go.
I had to step outside after that one. Before that day, I’ve never cried or gotten emotional like that. I learned when I was at the fire department as a young adult when people are injured or hurt, we just take them to the hospital, hand the chart to the charge nurse and that was it. I didn’t know if they lived, died, or anything that happened to them from that point on. So I got somewhat used to that disconnection. For me to be able to cut hair for homeless, I can’t follow through on each individual. I just can’t. It’s not good for me; it’s not good for them. I just focus on what we are doing at the moment. I cut their hair, it’s going to be a great half hour or hour, however long they want to talk to me. We will do the haircut and talk, and that’s just it. Good luck with your life. I have to make the disconnection. However, with this little girl, I had to walk outside, that one was very, very hard.
Moya: What did you say to the little girl as you were taking her arms off of you?
Reed: I just said, “It was so nice to meet you. You are such a precious little girl, and you have such a great family.”
Coincidently, just the other night I read a letter that the mom of the little girl wrote to the director of this event. She wrote that she wanted to let the director know how happy she was, and she wanted to know more about me and to thank me for taking care of her family. She wrote, “I’m the mom whose daughter wouldn’t let go of the hairdresser. I want to thank you for providing me a safe place to bring my children, and thank the hairdresser.” That was incredible.
It’s hard when you see the kids, but it’s also hard to see women in their eighties who are in the shelter. I’ve cut hair for a couple of woman in the homeless shelter who have been in their eighties. They tell me that they don’t want to die there. They are getting older, and they don’t know what is going to happen to them. That is extraordinarily hard.
I was at the homeless shelter getting ready as usual. . . I turned around, and I see this woman walking down the hall who used to be one of my regular clients at the salon
There is one other person that stands out in my memory. I was at the homeless shelter getting ready as usual. I set my stuff up; I tell them I’m ready then somebody walks back to call for the next person. I usually listen to their footsteps and try to imagine what they are going to look like when they come in. This one time I turned around, and I see this woman walking down the hall who used to be one of my regular clients at the salon. She used to spend a lot of money every six weeks for me to cut and color her hair. She had two kids in private schools and lived in an affluent area of Maryland. We recognized each other, and I said, “What are you doing here? Are you volunteering?” She said, “I’m a client.” I was dumbfounded. She was embarrassed. I told her to sit down, and I said, “Wow. How does something like this happen?” She told me she had gone through a divorce with her husband; then her father got very sick. She was taking care of her dad until he passed away. Then there were problems with the will, and she didn’t get the money she thought was coming to her, and the divorce just wrecked her. She just ended up with nothing and nobody could help her. The kids were with their father, but I felt so sorry for this lady who previously seemed to have it all. That was a crazy situation, and I just couldn’t believe it. She was the last person on this earth I would have expected to see in the homeless shelter. It just proved to me that anyone could end up homeless in an instant.
You mentioned earlier that you had some experiences in your adolescent years that allowed you to identify with the homeless, could you elaborate on that?
Reed: Yes, I had some rough times during my teen years which provided me with experiences that allow me to understand what it’s like to be homeless. I tried to forget about those years, but every two to three years something would happen, or I’d see something that reminded me of a drug abuse program that I was in. I knew the things that happened there were not right. The older I got, the more I realized that children should not have been treated like that. There was no supervision and the young people who were in charge, watched as ungodly things happened to other kids. The worst part is that I got pulled into the corruption myself, and what was done to me, I then did to others thinking that is just how to survive in this program. I had a lot of regret for what I had done, so I ran from it for a long time.
About ten years ago, when we got a computer in our home, I decided to google Straight, Incorporated. That was the name of the program I was in from May of 1987 to May of 1989, in Springfield, Virginia. It was, in essence, a cult that operated under the guise of a national, adolescent drug rehabilitation program. I don’t know if you have ever heard of the cult called Synanon that served as a drug rehabilitation program for adults, but this was primarily the same thing only the adolescent version.
When I googled Straight, Incorporated, everything that I had been running from just hit me and I was in tears. I’m a strong person, and I don’t cry over much, but it just hit me. All my thoughts and feelings about those years were validated. When I read some of the things that said that this program was not right, and there are other program survivors out there—the term ‘survivor’ hit me—it hit me like a ton of bricks. I called my husband and said, “You have to come home.” He said, “What’s wrong?” I never do that under any circumstance because I had been through the Straight, Inc. program. That’s how I handle my life, most things that could happen to me couldn’t be that bad because I’ve already been through the some of the worst possible things that could happen. This program basically kidnaped me and forced me to do things that were against my will for two years. When he realized something unusual was going on, he came home. I showed him all of this stuff and told him what had happened to me and others in this program. He already knew I was in this program, but he never knew just how bad it was. It was just so shocking to see all of these ‘secrets’ published online; to see that it was out there.
Moya: What was his response to what you told him?
Reed: He wanted me to put it behind me. He said that this is stuff that had happened a long time ago and that I needed just to move on. And so I did. But sometimes the memories would still come up, and I would talk to him about it. At one point, I guess he got sick of me reflecting back on it, and he turned to me and said, “Stop talking about it! I never want to hear you talk about Straight again.” And so I did, and our marriage ended.
We were married for 23 years; it didn’t end because of Straight—at all. It was just one more thing in the line of things that happened to contribute to the divorce. He met me five years after I got out of that program and I still wasn’t back to normal. I was still getting used to just being back in mainstream society. I was trying to figure out how to adjust to certain things when I met him, and I ended up not being happy, but I just sucked it up like I did in Straight. As I grew older and stronger as a person, and as a woman, when he told me he never wanted me to talk about it again, it was like he was saying he didn’t care about me. I mean I have always run from it—my whole life had been running from Straight, whether I realized it or not—Straight was and is a huge part of my life.
Moya: You mentioned this program was like a cult, so how did you get out of it?
Reed: Well, I was fourteen years old when I was first put in this program, so two years later I was sixteen when they had let me return to school. I was sitting in gym class, and one of the girls wrote on my shoe “I Love Chad.” Now, I did have a crush on Chad, but I was in Straight, and I wasn’t allowed even to look at boys. I surely wasn’t supposed to have a crush on a boy. Those were a part of the written rules of the program, all of which had very literal interpretations. I had to go back to the Straight building directly after school. When I saw another girl from the program read my shoe, I knew I was going to get in big trouble.
you were prevented from going anywhere else including school
In this program, you begin in the first phase of the program, where you are told that you have lost all of your freedom and all of your rights because you decided to do drugs. That meant you were walked around by another girl like a dog on a leash, only the leash was a girl’s hand tightly wrapped around the top of the back of your pants and her thumb inserted through the belt loop. From the minute you entered the building (even if your parents just brought you there for an assessment, once you walked through the front doors they owned you) you were grabbed by your pants to be walked around and put in a seat. You were not allowed to get up from the seat without asking permission. You were watched at all times, and if you attempted to get up from your seat, other girls would grab you and sit you back down in your seat (or worse). You were watched by other kids 24/7. There were two bathroom breaks during the 12+ hour days, at which time girls who had earned back their freedom would grab you by the pants and walk you to the bathrooms. There were no doors on the stalls, and there were girls standing guard, one in front of each stall. You had 30 seconds to do your thing then you were pulled up and out of the stall and walked back to your chair in the group. This is just one example of the literal meaning of having lost all freedom according to the program. When you weren’t in the building, you were sent home (by the belt loop of course) to another kid’s home where the same treatment continued, and you were prevented from going anywhere else including school. You progress through the phases of the program by proving you’ve become a true believer in their ways, and you slowly earn back freedom along the way.
I had been in this program for two years and was in the fifth and final phase of the program when this “I love Chad” incident occurred. I knew she had seen the writing on my shoe, and she knew I saw her see it. We both knew that she would have to turn me in. It was part of this strange culture; she had to report me so she wouldn’t get in trouble. ‘Trouble’ almost always meant having all of your freedoms taken away once again.
When I was at home that night, I decided I was going to leave the program the next day. I didn’t know what I was going to do or where I was going to go, but I knew I couldn’t just go back to the building. If I did, I’d be set back to the first phase and shuffled between random houses with nothing more than my clothes in my paper bag (if I was lucky enough even to have that).
I had a couple of girls in their first stages of the program staying with me at my house that I had to get to the Straight building the next day. Luckily, by then the program had a Straight, Inc. bus that would transport Maryland people to the Springfield, Virginia building. I was so afraid I was going to miss getting them on that bus because I knew if I had to go anywhere near the building that day, that I would get set back to the first phase. However, we got there on time, I got them on the bus, and I knew I was home free. Then, my mother took me to school.
Moya: Where did you go from there?
Reed: I went to the school counselor whom I was close to and had already talked to about Straight. I told her that I was going to leave Straight, and a couple of friends were going to help me. I decided I would just walk into the woods behind the school and stay there until I could figure out where to go. I spoke with the counselor that morning and stayed with her most of the day. At about noon, I went to the bathroom, and when I came back, my parents were standing there in the counselor’s office.
We’re on the fourth floor of the school, and my parents are standing to my right, and there are open windows to my left. I’m looking at the windows and noticed that they open inwardly, but I’m small, so I think if I run fast enough I could jump out the window. There was just no way I could go back to Straight, Inc. My parents saw me looking at the windows and immediately understood what was going through my mind. I started crying, “I’m not going back. I’ll die before I go back, I’m not going back.” They just started crying and said, “You don’t have to go back, Laura. You don’t have to go back.”
I was so messed up in the head from that place I didn’t know what to believe and what not to believe.
I was so messed up in the head from that place I didn’t know what to believe and what not to believe. I can’t remember how long I stood there contemplating whether I was going to jump out that window or not. Eventually, we sat down in the counselor’s office and started talking and everything kind of simmered down. When my dad drove me to his house, I had my hand on the car door the whole way home because I had a feeling he might still try to take me back to the building. I knew if he got onto the beltway, I would jump out of the car. However, he did end up taking me home.
He called the building and said, “We’ve graduated ourselves from the program today.” The staff, as was par for the course, told him, “You need to come back in. She is a druggy, and she is manipulating you. You need to come back in, and we need to sit down and talk about it.” My dad said, “No. We’ve done enough talking. We’re not going to do this anymore. We are graduating.”
So that night and for the next couple of months, I had my parents put an alarm on my bedroom door. They already had the alarms because the program required parents to put alarms on the bedroom doors to keep all of the kids in their room at nights to prevent them from escaping. But I was nervous that people from the program would come into my house and try to take me back to the program in the middle of the night. I figured if my parents alarmed me in the room, it would at least give me a chance to run. And this was crazy because I never thought that way before I went into this program, I never thought like that. I was… I mean I was a kid that was rebellious, but I never did drugs. I didn’t drink or do any drugs before I went in there. I may have had a couple of sips of Jack Daniels because my friends did, but other than that I never did anything. Then I end up in the toughest drug rehabilitation program in the country.
Moya: Why did that happen?
Reed: It was because there wasn’t enough information out there. My mom found the program through my dentist whose child was in there. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I found out later that you got a discount if you referred people to the program. He said to my mom, “Your daughter isn’t looking good, are you struggling with her?” My mom was like, “Yes, she’s just difficult.” He asked her, “Do you think she’s on drugs?” My mom responded, “I have no idea.”
He proceeded to ask her some questions from a Straight checklist about me and of course, every teenage kid in the world meets the criteria of the list. So she took me to Straight, to find out if I was on drugs. And that is how I ended up there. Just by chance.
Even though it was over twenty years ago when I was 14 years old and in that program, I can still vividly remember that feeling of being completely alone, not knowing who to trust, witnessing horrible violence, and never knowing where I would be sleeping that night. That’s how I can understand the experiences of the homeless people.
Now, I’ve developed as a woman and as a person, and I love where I am in my life. And I love doing the things I have a passion for. I love cutting hair, and I love working with the homeless.
You do seem to have a passion for cutting hair for the homeless, how does this work affect you?
Reed: I will tell you this; I cannot give it up now. If I tried, I would probably have withdrawals. Doing this work is actually very selfish. Going through the divorce, and custody disputes this past summer was probably one of the worst times in my life, especially since Straight was brought up in the custody situation. It was just brutal. While my world felt like it was falling apart, I cut more hair for the homeless than I ever had because it was the only thing that made me happy. It helped me get through it. Helping other people and giving back to other people gave me my life back. It was a beautiful thing to fall back on. So it is was my drug. I would go to shelters, and I would come home and think I did really good today, I helped those people. Cutting hair for the homeless feeds me the drug of satisfaction.
What does the future look like for #LauraOnTheStreet?
Reed: Oh, I will do this forever. I am going to Australia in a couple of weeks (because my daughter will be studying abroad there), so I’m going to bring my scissors and do it there. I want to keep doing this for as long as I possibly can. I want to give haircuts to the homeless in every city or country I visit.
What is your advice to people who might be interested in doing something similar?
Reed: Oh my goodness! Do it! I found my niche, I kind of stumbled on it. I was very lucky, but everybody has something or some way that he or she can give back to humanity, you just have to find what is right for you.
Moya: I have mentioned what you do to my hairdresser, and she thought it was nice, but didn’t seem interested in doing something similar, what would you say to those people?
Reed: Some people want to do it, and some people don’t want to do it. If you don’t want to give back, that’s fine, but don’t complain about being unhappy. You will find that the happiest people are the ones that give back to others—the ones that make a difference in the world, whether it’s helping animals or people. There are homeless shelters down the street that need things for their clients. It could be as simple as bringing yarn to a homeless shelter, a lot of the ladies knit. There is a ton of stuff that you can do. Anybody can do it, and it isn’t money that these people need.
Regardless of what or if you choose to do anything, at least acknowledge the homeless people. That is what people who have been on the street for a long time say—that acknowledgment is huge. So many people walk by them and ignore them because they just don’t realize that homeless people are individuals too. They need time, and they need to be treated like humans. I think that is the most important thing. I carry apples with me all the time. Sometimes all it takes is a little a bit of acknowledgment, “Here ya go, have a great day,” I say as I hand them an apple.
Here is a sampling of what you will find on Laura’s Instagram