War Memorial Plaza is bumping on a recent Monday night. More than 100 people mill about, waiting in lines for barber chairs. Hair stylists ask their clients about their preferences — “You like a little more around the edges, right?” — queries a black-beanied stylist of the man in his chair. Jen Harley, sporting a pink mohawk and wielding razor sharp shears, blasts ‘80s Madonna and Michael Jackson from her station as she works.
The festive atmosphere takes over the normally mundane downtown space weekly, as Nashville Street Barbers sets up their mobile salon. The project came from an idea founder Caroline Lindner had five years ago. Working as a hair stylist for years, Lindner understood the transformative power of a good haircut, and as a Nashvillian with a heart for helping, she wanted to use what she knew to give back.
Scrolling through her Facebook newsfeed, Lindner stumbled upon an article for local organization Shower Up Nashville, a nonprofit focused on offering mobile showers to people experiencing homelessness around the city. A few Facebook messages later, Lindner set up to join the crew and give haircuts.
“I have been getting groups of barbers and stylists to donate haircuts to different nonprofit groups for five years now — it’s something we can give that brings joy, improves self-worth and gives confidence. It also can change how the world looks at that person. It’s a big deal,” Lindner says.
After a few months of volunteering, working with Shower Up every Monday night, sometimes by herself and sometimes with others, she linked up with others who felt dedicated to helping, and the Nashville Street Barbers was formed. Today, some of the city's finest stylists and barbers have those experiencing homelessness lining up for a cut in their chair. Some evenings, the collective will do as many as 80 haircuts in one swing.
"Having that human connection when someone is cutting their hair means a lot, and I’ve always gotten joy out of helping someone really own their look," says Harley, who worked as a stylist for 23 years before becoming a representative for a hair tools company. She's been involved with the Nashville Street Barbers for three months.
"I don’t have money to just throw at people to take care of people's problems, but this is something I can do. It’s a passion project for me, and since I’m not behind the chair 100 percent of the time anymore, it’s my way to get that fulfillment. A lot of homeless people feel invisible and way down the totem pole, and they don’t have to feel that way."
For Harley and Lindner, the importance of the work comes back to one thing — the understanding that people are more alike than different.
“This work is so important to me because I see myself in each and every person,” Lindner says. “I am only a couple of steps away from being them, and if I can offer an experience that can make someone forget all of the negatives that can come with being homeless, I have done my part. There are people that showed me the same kindness...when I was at my lowest, and I can only strive to do as well as they did.”
Lindner is currently raising money for the Street Barbers to buy more and better equipment, including cordless clippers and lights, portable shelters for rain protection, and barber stools. To contribute, head to gofundme.com/632l92g.