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Mobtown Beat

Haircuts for the Homeless

Local Nonprofit Offers Free Haircuts and Grooming to Baltimore’s Neediest

Jefferson Jackson Steele
COOL NAME: Rob Cradle serves up a free haircut to Ladrelle Stevens.

By Jessica Leshnoff | Posted 11/2/2005

When the coat and canned-food drives start up every winter, chances are a collection won’t be taken up for haircuts. But think about it: Could any fully functioning adult be where he or she is without looking clean and smelling good? Walk into a job interview or meet a potential landlord unkempt, and chances are the position and the apartment will go to someone else.

“Everybody in the world wants to give their clothing to the homeless, but homeless people don’t have anywhere to put clothes,” says Rob Cradle, founder of Rob’s Barbershop Community Foundation, a nonprofit that provides haircuts and basic grooming necessities to the city’s neediest residents.

Cradle heard these sentiments from Baltimore homeless-shelter residents time and again, so several years ago, the longtime barber decided to use his vocation to meet this particular need of the city’s transient population. A haircut, he figured, could elevate a person’s mood—maybe it could also change someone’s entire outlook on life.

“Grooming services might get them up on their feet, help them find a job, a place to stay,” he says. “People won’t do much, or nothing, if they don’t look good.”

Cradle, an Edmondson Village native, says he was inspired to give homeless and impoverished people free haircuts years ago, when two foster children came to his Odenton barbershop. Their foster parent told him that income was limited, so haircuts for the kids was almost beyond their budget. Cradle says he also learned that there was a homeless shelter about a mile from his barbershop, but the residents there could not afford his services.

At the time, Cradle was attending philanthropy classes through the Christian Stewardship Association to learn the basics of running a nonprofit organization (he later, in 2004, took further such classes through the Associated Black Charities’ Institute for Community Capacity Building). Touched by the plight of the foster kids and shelter residents, he placed a collection box by his shop door and printed brochures telling customers that their donations would be used to provide free haircuts for the community’s neediest. The first day he put the box out, he says, a customer picked up a brochure, read it, and dropped in $20.

Cradle first put out the donation box in March 2000, and he officially launched Rob’s Barbershop Community Foundation later that month. In 2002, Cradle shut down his nine-employee shop to devote all of his time to the foundation, which today is an IRS-recognized nonprofit organization that not only grooms impoverished clients free of charge, but also trains teens to go into barbering and cosmetology themselves.

Most of Rob’s Barbershop clients come from area shelters, but he also serves the city’s working poor. Many of the foundation’s customers come from Southwest Baltimore and many of them are children of single mothers (and the mothers themselves) who struggle just to obtain life’s basic necessities.

Cradle—handsome with bright eyes and a quick smile—attributes his tireless motivation to his Christian faith. He says he doubts that an organization like his would exist had he not founded Rob’s Barbershop himself five years ago.

“Nobody’s crazy enough to take the time to do this,” he says. “I gave up my shop. I put everything down to do this. I put everything down in my life to pick this up.”

That shop used to provide Cradle and his family with a hearty $50,000 to $80,000 a year. Now he brings in less than a third of that and lives what he calls a “no frills” life.

Funding for the foundation thus far has been completely private. It has so far received grants from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Baltimore’s Beechfield United Methodist Church, and the Ronald McDonald House Charities, which gave Rob’s Barbershop $3,500. The McDonald House donation was used to purchase a van to transport clients from Baltimore to Kevin’s Barber Beauty Salon in Severn, owned by foundation board chairman Kevin Poole, where the free haircuts, shaves, braiding, and hair straightening are performed.

Cradle says that he and his five-member board are hoping to eventually obtain state aid, but first, he says, the organization must grow enough to be able to “handle the compliance” that comes with government funding. Right now the organization has a modest staff that consists of two instructors, two female hairstylists, two male barbers, and Cradle himself.

“I would be so inundated with staying compliant that I would never get other work done,” he says.

The Rev. Edward Robinson, director of Agapé House, a shelter for women and children that sends many of its residents to Rob’s Barbershop, says the organization’s services—minor as they may seem to some—have great benefit for those who take advantage of them. Rob’s Barbershop not only provides haircuts for the kids and women who live at Agapé House, but the organization has also helped strike up a deal with household-goods supplier Unilever to provide laundry detergent to residents there so the kids could go to school wearing clean clothes.

“It’s something we don’t tend to think about a lot,” Robinson says. But some adults in the city’s shelter system have gone without grooming for years, he says, and it takes a toll on their psyche, especially children and teenagers. “Many of them feel really bad about who they are. . . . You’d be surprised what a fresh haircut can do. They feel better about themselves as people.”

So far, Cradle says he has trained 16 teenagers in hair care, and he has seven more currently in training. He provides them with styling tools, sprays, creams, and skills to pursue a new career.

Ladrelle Stevens of Anne Arundel County, a former client of Rob’s Barbershop, says the organization helped him through a tough time in his life. In January 2004, the 30-year-old was involved in a near-fatal car accident that left him with a punctured lung, cracked ribs, and damaged arteries. He was on disability for a year and a half, barely scraping by on a small budget that didn’t even cover his rent. Suddenly, he says, such simple things as his usual Friday afternoon haircuts had to be cut out of his life.

One afternoon after Stevens got out of the hospital, he stopped into Kevin’s Barber Beauty Salon and met Cradle, who was cutting hair there that day. Stephens told Cradle about his accident and the fact that he couldn’t afford haircuts very often anymore; Cradle hooked him up with Rob’s Barbershop, which Stevens says kept him hopeful about his health and future throughout his recovery.

“I was still able to feel upbeat,” Stevens says of the experience with Rob’s. “I felt like my life was a little bit back together.”

Today, Stevens is back on his feet, working as a full-time truck driver, but he says Cradle’s services helped him get through his ordeal. A good haircut can “change a person’s day,” he says. “If you lookin’ good, you feelin’ good.”

And to Cradle, making folks feel good is what it’s all about. A good haircut can help people feel whole again, he says, and provide a brief respite from their misfortunes.

“It definitely gives [clients] some normalcy,” Cradle says. “They can look in the mirror and at least be pleased with what they see in spite of their situation.”

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