After taking his scissors to the streets, Joshua Coombes launched Do Something For Nothing – a movement that urges people to use their skills to help those in need
Joshua Coombes, a London hairdresser, took his scissors and clippers with him to the London salon where he was working one day in 2015. He stopped to chat with a man living nearby and ended up giving him an untried haircut.
Coombes (main photo) has been telling stories about homeless people since he was a teenager, and offering haircuts to them. His social media posts about the people he met began to reach a large audience, and the movement that would eventually become #DoSomethingForNothing was born.
In one post, an image of a bearded face – lined deeply with time and worry – appears next to the same face without the beard, looking neat and fresh. During a career as a professional boxer, the man pictured – Joe (below) – travelled all over the world, from Northern Ireland to Australia. He stayed in Australia for the duration of his visa, and was then returned to the UK.
“It takes you a while to get on your feet in a place like London,” Joe explained to Coombes, and was pleased to accept the offer of a free haircut. Joe’s is one of many stories shared in Coombes’ recently published book, Do Something for Nothing. These tales include loss, addiction, and abandonment. But they also highlight hope, resilience, determination, and tenacity.
Coombes, a hipster type of guy who used his income as a guitarist for punk bands, was approached to author the book.
“I started by writing the captions for my photos on Instagram. I was posting before and after photos of the people I met, and the words became important,” he explains.
He believes in storytelling as a way to create change. His photos and captions allow us to see beneath the surface of homelessness. They help us understand the reasons people are in this situation or tell us small details about our characters.
“I don’t believe in shouting matches or people behind their keyboards, anonymously arguing,” Coombes says, “but whether you’re a photographer, videographer or a writer, listening to and then telling someone’s story is likely to change perceptions.”
Morgan Freeman, a Hollywood actor and director, was attracted to his work. National Geographic’s 2017 six-part documentary series The Story of UsFreeman presented the episode titled Love, which featured Coombes. Freeman reveals how love is reflected in Coombes’ work in an episode called Love. It was filmed in south London. “Small acts of love can make a big impact,” notes Freeman in the film.
Coombes is now an international ambassador for the message of Coombes and inspires others to share their gifts with others. Street Vet was founded by Jade Statt, a veterinarian who met Coombes in London. Street Vet provides free veterinary care for homeless pets.
Coombes also inspired Kevin Maclellan’s desire to give something for nothing. In recognition of their tireless efforts during the pandemic lockdowns, the former Glasgow Rangers FC FC physiotherapist offers free back pain consultations for NHS workers.
Coombes is wary about being regarded as a saintly figure. “People focus on my generosity, putting me in the position of hero,” he says, “But [all I know is that] I’m living a life that feels right to me.”
He has seen a positive change in his life through the project, and he has made lasting friendships from his hair-cut encounters. One is with Lavane, a woman Coombes met in London 2 years ago. With the help of the #DoSomethingForNothing community, she is now housed and working in a cafe, with her mental health greatly benefiting.
“I feel like a completely different woman,” she says. “I’m not saying I don’t have dark moments any more, but they’re not as bad and not as often.”
Main image: Antonio Olmos