Christie Eglip engaged in the usual beauty shop banter, but with extra pizazz, relating the day’s events as a pupil of Womack Salon Academy snipped the last of her frayed split ends. Jobless and without a home, she hadn’t received a trim in months.
“It started looking really scraggly,” Eglip said. “I needed a haircut—bad.”
While most beauty schools offer discounts, every Tuesday at Womack whoever steps through the door on Silver Avenue and onto the salon’s black-and-white checkerboard floor between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. gets a free haircut. On any other day, a haircut costs $15. Free was an offer Eglip couldn’t afford to pass up.
“It’s a big help, especially for folks like me who are low on cash,” Eglip said.
Eglip found out about the free Tuesdays through San Francisco’s Project Homeless Connect, a citywide initiative that links homeless with a range of resources—medical consultations, eye exams, pet care, etc. At the organization’s bimonthly events at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, long lines for haircuts are common. On average nearly a hundred are donated each event.
“To have someone spend time on you, speak with you, take care of you—it’s a powerful thing that happens when you get a haircut that we take for granted,” said Judith Klain, executive director of Project Homeless Connect, “but [it’s] a difficult thing for someone who is homeless to receive.”
A new ‘do, she added, “is one of those things that is important for anyone trying to get out of a situation.”
Nine Bay Area salons participate in the Project Homeless events, but Womack holds the distinction of being the only one to offer free haircuts throughout the year, according to Klain’s office.
Ella Gilmore, the 57-year-old owner of the Mission-based Womack Salon Academy, said she began offering the Tuesday special five years ago—three years before joining Project Homeless Connect—and won’t let a recession trim it from her budget. Initially she started it to benefit seniors living on fixed incomes, she said, and found the service worked on many levels.
“It fulfills the students’ need to cut hair, and it fulfills customers’ needs,” she said. “It’s like people helping people.”
It also fits into a larger business philosophy that Gilmore has lived by since she moved her academy from Powell Street to the Mission 10 years ago: helping her students, several of whom are on unemployment, help themselves.
“A lot of dislocated workers come here, and some of them, I know, are homeless,” Gilmore said.
Gilmore’s academy is among only a handful of state-approved barber and cosmetology apprenticeship programs in the Bay Area. Most beauty schools require five days a week of classroom time over an 11-month period. Womack students achieve the same amount of credit hours over two years by attending class once a week, and working as apprentices for barber or beauty shops on the other days to pay the $975 monthly tuition.
Currently, nearly half of Gilmore’s 30 students are Asian, 20 percent are black, and 20 percent are Latino. One student is an engineer from Ethiopia seeking to change his career; another immigrated from the Philippines, leaving behind a lifelong career and his own salon to join his sister’s family in San Francisco; and a third said she couldn’t afford to pay for the program for the first few months, but nonetheless was welcomed by Gilmore to begin the course.
“A lot of them are down and out. There aren’t a lot of social programs left to help them out,” she said. “So I try to get them into the workforce.”
Scott Womack, Gilmore’s nephew and a barber who’s worked at the academy for 15 years, said within the next few weeks they’ll add yet another minority demographic to their classroom by helping train ex-offenders released from prison. “We will teach anyone to cut hair. All walks of life—women, men, big, small, the rainbow,” he beamed, tending to a head with clippers in hand. “Because once you learn how to cut hair, it’s for life.”
This year, programs like the Womack Salon Academy will be critical. The nation’s unemployment rate bolted to 7.2 percent in December, the highest it’s been in 16 years, rounding out one of the worst years in modern history for American workers. Mission Hiring Hall, a nonprofit that provides two open orientations in job readiness every Thursday, has been overflowing with job seekers, according to Emilio Aparicio, the general employment coordinator. He said he’s had to turn away 10 to 15 people each week.
When pressed for a reason for why she’s so inclined to lend a hand to the growing number of unemployed and homeless San Franciscans, Gilmore was stumped.
“I’ve never really thought about why I do it,” she said. “It’s almost like I have a need to do it. I’m so used to doing it, it’s just a part of me.”
On Tuesday, Gilmore’s generosity was rewarded in at least one small way. Nearly half an hour after her haircut, Eglip returned carrying stacks of coins, enough to fill both of Gilmore’s hands. “Thank you,” Eglip said. The gesture left Gilmore speechless as Eglip left the salon. Then she returned to her styling chair, back to work for the remainder of the day.