A weekly series about the ordinary people who make Philadelphia extraordinary.
What Brennon Jones was doing with a razor on a busy Center City sidewalk this April stopped a fellow barber cold.
Jones, 29, was giving free haircuts to men who are homeless. He had a small chair and chalkboard sign that read “Haircuts 4 Homeless.” Jones also had tools, talent, and a drive to use them for something bigger than himself.
Impressed, Sean Johnson, who owns Taper’s barbershop in Ogontz, offered Jones a job. The married father of four politely declined. Jones’ passion for barbering had only recently been reignited by his mission to serve those who are homeless, and he wasn’t about to give it up.
“I was cutting hair for 11 years, and I was never happy. I’ve been the happiest I’ve been doing Haircuts 4 Homeless and I get nothing in return,” said Jones, a Chester native who now lives in West Philadelphia. “I felt like on a spiritual level, God wasn’t telling me to retire or quit cutting hair. He was just saying, ‘Approach it differently.'”
Last month, Johnson, 44, ran into Jones again. He asked Jones what he was going to do when winter rolled in. Jones, who has given haircuts to more than 1,000 people who are homeless, hadn’t thought that far ahead.
Johnson invited Jones to an unused but fully furnished barbershop he owns, doors from his own shop on the 5900 block of Old York Road. Once inside, Johnson tossed Jones the keys.
“He said, ‘If you love it, it’s yours,’ and then he walked out,” Jones recalled. “I was confused. I’ve been given a lot of things as a result of this mission, but nothing to this capacity. For somebody to give you a building, for him to say, ‘This is yours, no strings attached,’ it kind of blew my mind.”
Johnson, who went through barber school decades ago while serving six years in prison for assault, said he never forgot the chances that people gave him and he wanted to do the same for Jones.
“You see a lot of bad things in this city — when you see something good, you just want to be a part of it,” Johnson said.
Since Jones’ mission was first reported by PhillyVoice in January, Haircuts 4 Homeless has gone viral. He’s been on Rachael Ray’s show and taken a 12-city “Cuts of Compassion Tour.” His Facebook Live videos of the haircuts he gives homeless men have been viewed by so many people, a woman once recognized that Jones was cutting the hair of her nephew — whom she had believed was dead for seven years. She came to pick him up.
The grand opening celebration of Jones’ barbershop, Phenomenon Perfection, was Sunday. Monday marked the first day he served clients who are homeless there. Jones plans to strictly serve people who are homeless every Monday and provide lunch and health screenings along with haircuts.
Jones, who didn’t know much about homelessness before he started his mission, said he’s learned that many people “just need a new beginning.”
“I always say it’s none of my business how they got in their situation, but I make it my business to help them get out,” he said. “It’s bigger than a haircut for me. They look at me as the blessing, but I look at them as the blessing.”
Know someone in the Philadelphia area whose story deserves to be told — or someone whose story you’d like to know? Send suggestions for We the People profiles to Stephanie Farr at email@example.com or call her at 215-854-4225. Send tips via Twitter to @FarFarrAway.
“I was looking for somewhere to relocate. It is the City of Brotherly Love, so why not Philadelphia?”
What’s been a classic Philly moment for you?
“I would say the day I was out cutting in City Hall and a representative from Councilman David Oh’s office walked up to me and handed me some Eagles tickets to the season opener because they just appreciated what it is that I did. That was like a wow moment for me.”
What is your wish for the city?
“That they would solve homelessness. I don’t think that they should ignore it any longer. It is a problem, it’s not a disease but it is a huge problem and somebody needs to do something about it.”
Want more We the People?
- Last week’s profile: Street performers Eli Capella and Seraiah Nicole create music in real time that’s inspired by the people who pass them on the streets of Philadelphia.
- From Nov. 1: John Sebastian, the maintenance director at Reading Terminal Market, was a steel drummer who toured with a Caribbean orchestra and jammed with Jimmy Buffett.