Josh Santiago knew he wanted to be a barber from a young age. What he couldn’t have imagined is that he’d end up taking his skills to the streets and offering haircuts to those most in need—completely free of charge. In the last five years, Josh has used his talents as a barber to brighten thousands of people’s lives in his Philadelphia community and beyond, and he has no plans of stopping anytime soon.
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Growing up in a household fraught with drug addiction and abuse, Josh never had it easy. His father was always trying to find ways to cut costs since money was tight, like skipping trips to the barber. As a consequence, his father would give DIY haircuts to Josh and his older brother, but they didn’t always turn out so well.
“He used to mess us up every time,” recalls Josh. “Finally my brother had enough and said, ‘Listen, if he doesn’t know how to cut hair, I’m gonna try.’”
Soon enough, Josh’s brother took over the family barber role, and the haircut quality thankfully improved. Wanting to follow in the footsteps of his big brother and role model, Josh began to dream about cutting hair, too.
Flash-forward to 2014 when Josh set out to fulfill his dream by enrolling in barber school. His instructor regularly sent him and his classmates to homeless shelters to give free haircuts, allowing them to gain professional experience while also doing good in the community. After giving only a handful of haircuts, Josh learned something that changed his life forever. He realized that, for many folks experiencing homelessness, getting a haircut is transformative; it can bring them so much joy and confidence at a time when they need it most.
“Something as simple as a haircut can make anyone feel good about themselves,” he says. “The power of a haircut is out-of-this-world, you know?”
After graduating from barber school about a year later, Josh wanted to continue giving back to his community and offering his haircutting services to those who couldn’t afford them. He began carrying his barber tools in his car so that if he encountered a person experiencing homelessness while driving, he could stop and offer them a cut or a beard trimming—right then and there on the sidewalk.
“Asking someone if they want a haircut brings a lot of people to tears,” says Josh. “Hugs and tears are definitely great compensation.”
Over time, Josh has gotten to know many of his neighbors who live on the streets in his community. He knows many of them by name and has learned many of their stories—a simple gesture that Josh says makes all the difference.
“It can be so dehumanizing when people don’t look at you, and maybe you don’t hear someone say your name all day,” he says. “Their facial expressions are priceless when you call them by their name and you actually remember them.”
After about a year of cutting hair on the streets for free, Josh saw—over and over again—the profound impact that a simple haircut and a friendly conversation can have on someone’s morale. His experiences inspired him to turn his passion for cutting hair into an organization he named Empowering Cuts. Since launching in 2017, Empowering Cuts has worked with over 50 organizations and has helped over 7,500 people across the country look their best at no cost.
What’s more, his organization doesn’t limit its help to offering free haircuts to those experiencing homelessness. Empowering Cuts also provides food, toiletries, and financial support to anyone in need, including military veterans and families who are going through periods of financial hardship.
Of all the memories he’s made over the past five years of cutting hair, Josh says one of his proudest moments was when his organization threw what he calls, “an extreme” 24-hour fundraising event last year in Allegheny, one of the most impoverished areas of Philadelphia.
“We had barbers come from two hours away just to be a part of this event, and we was cutting hair for 24 hours,” he says. “We had stylists, free food, free HIV testing, a DJ, and live performances from local artists. It was just extremely beautiful, man.”
More recently, Josh purchased a 32-foot camper RV with the goal of taking Empowering Cuts on the road and offering barber services to even more communities around the country. To offset the many costs of transforming an RV into a mobile barbershop, he launched a GoFundMe. He hopes his fundraiser will help pay for the remodeling costs of the RV, as well as other travel expenses like lodging and gas.
Josh’s experience with the homeless community has given him an abundance of empathy and insight, all of which he hopes to share with others as he continues his mission.
“I’ve learned to never judge a book by its cover, because you just never know what that person is going through,” he says. “You don’t know how that person ended up in the situation they’re in.”