Driving into downtown Indianapolis on a Wednesday evening at dusk, you’ll find most traffic busily rushing out of the city. The daytime throng of people briskly walking from business buildings to coffee shops in suits, dresses, fancy shoes, and expensive suede or leather jackets has disappeared. What becomes visible slightly before sunset is a crowd of folks congregated around park benches and picnic tables. These are individuals who carry with them their most valuable possessions: a hat, coat, and plastic bag (containing a granola bar and bottled water that a local charitable organization distributed).
On this particular evening, the folks who make their homes at shelters, unsheltered in the city’s hidden corners or in transitional housing are clearly excited. Something new has appeared on the downtown city park landscape: Free haircuts offered by Summer Hudson.
One by one, people in the park gradually approach the hairdresser. Shy at first, a boy in his teens asks: “What do I do?” Summer glances over her shoulder and replies cheerfully, “Just put your name on the sheet.” She is busy cutting the hair of an older gentleman. “I’ll call you when it’s your turn,” she says to the teen. Quickly, she finishes brushing off the loose hairs as she removes the black cape from the person seated in front of her. “What do you think?” she asks, showing him the freshly trimmed hair in a mirror. He nods silently, appreciatively, while looking at his image. He then straightens his shoulders slightly as he rises and strides off. Summer loudly calls out the next name on the list.
Within twenty minutes, the sign-up sheet on the table next to Summer is almost filled.
Like any local barbershop, those waiting their turn sit or stand nearby, chatting amicably. There’s a young couple on bench who are expecting a baby. The woman who is pregnant listens attentively as she receives counsel from those sitting nearby. The crowd is both young and old. Black and white. Male and female.
One man wanders over and says gruffly, “I ain’t never had my hair cut by a woman before.” Summer smiles and says, “Never, wow! Well, what else you got to do right now?” She laughs heartily, setting everyone at ease. The man puts his name on the list and asks, ‘You got a license?” She answers flatly, “Nope. I’m just gonna cut your hair without one.” The people milling around her start laughing. “Of course she’s got a license,” another person quips. “What do you think!” Summer smirks. She asks the man seated how he wants his hair done and then rapidly starts clipping, not unlike a Master Chef who precisely dices carrots while casually chatting. On her prior park visit, Summer completed 25 haircuts in two hours. “Yes, I have a professional haircutting license,” she says, returning to the conversation with the gruff man. “But you have to trust me to use it.” He nods, still mumbling that no woman ever cut his hair before.
Finishing the current haircut, Summer calls out another name. A man with gentle blue eyes and skin slightly weathered with age walks over and sits down. He starts to explain, “I just need a trim. A little off the top.” She asks if he wants his beard trimmed. He nods yes, and softly notes that he wants it cut close on the sides but fuller in the center.” “Like a goatee?” she asks. He nods yes, his eyes downcast.
Although the people receiving haircuts are hesitant at first, they soon warm up to Summer’s cheerful banter. Before long, she has the group laughing and telling stories. Their eyes change from wary to happy. When they look in the mirror, there is an unmistakable sense of pride along with bright smiles—a reflection of themselves at their best.
A nearby teen takes a selfie with his cell phone after his haircut. Another young boy, who appears to be about 14, says he wants his hair cut like his friend, who is in his early 20s. A woman sits down and unties her long ponytail. She remains quiet during her haircut but when she’s done, she shakes her hair, gathers it in a ponytail again, and grins widely. All in all, it’s a festive occasion for those who are gathered. Winter has not yet arrived and the fall breeze is gentle, not harsh and cold. Summer hopes that her haircuts will bring some awareness to the city about homelessness. Although a number of residents in nearby neighborhoods expressed concern that her services would bring homeless people into the park, Summer responds matter-of-factly. “They’re already there. You can’t just pretend like those people are not there.”
According to the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention (CHIP) 2014 annual Indianapolis homeless Point-in-Time count, the Indianapolis community counted 1,897 homeless individuals who were staying in a shelter, transitional housing, or unsheltered. “There was a marked increase in our 2014 numbers compared to the last three years we conducted the count,” said Executive Director Christy Shepard.
“I think it’s a highly misunderstood population,” says Summer. “People don’t understand that it’s not necessarily laziness. A lot of people who are homeless are vets. For others, it’s the result of mental health issues.” She pauses and then adds, “Nowadays, so many people are just one paycheck away from being homeless themselves, even if they have jobs.”
Summer is especially well suited for her volunteer service work. During the day, she is employed at Community Hospital East, Gallahue Mental Health Services, where she teaches life skills to those with mental disabilities.
“I’ve been a hairdresser for ten years,” she says. “I’ve always done both social services and haircutting. She adds, “I like seeing people happy. There’s nothing like having your haircut, even if it’s just a trim.”
To support her on-going efforts to provide free haircuts for those who are homeless, Summer has started a GoFundMe site. She hopes to help raise funds for the purchase of supplies such as capes, clippers, a generator, and sanitation items such as lice spray, barbicide and alcohol. She says casually, “Maybe someday, I can find a space indoors, in the downtown area, where I can give free haircuts during the winter.”
“I don’t think people should be afraid of those who are homeless,” she concludes.
“My mom always taught me that it’s important to help people. If you can help, do it. If you have a skill or trade that can lift somebody up, then why not pay it forward.” She smiles. “I’m making people beautiful.”
The Coalition for Homelessness Intervention & Prevention (CHIP) in Indianapolis takes a “Point-in-Time” count of the homeless in Marion County once a year. The data is based on individuals living in shelters or on the streets. The data does not include individuals or families living with other family members or friends.
According to the count taken on January 29, 2014:
CHIP officials estimate between 7500 – 9500 individual in Marion County experience homelessness at some point in a given year. That estimate is based on national research that suggests annual numbers are three to five times greater than pint in time counts and annual data collected from area missions and the Homeless Management Information System.