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Man challenging misconceptions about homelessness one haircut at a time

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Posted at 8:47 AM, Jan 10, 2023

Joshua Santiago grew up in Kensington, Philadelphia. He says he sold drugs for years because that’s all he saw for himself.

“We just have so many individuals that come to Philadelphia that get trapped in that neighborhood, you know,” Santiago said. “It’s just a massive homeless population that just stays outside because, you know, a majority of these individuals don’t feel safe in shelters. They’d rather sleep out on the streets.”

In 2017, a team at Yale conducted a survey about people’s perceptions of homelessness. They found, compared to previous surveys, people “endorsed more compassion [and] government support.” But still, misperceptions prevailed.

Respondents estimated 1 in 5 homeless individuals were married, 1 in 3 was Black and that fewer than half had a mental illness. In reality, nearly half are married, an eighth is Black and nearly 90% have some form of mental illness.

“You get people that have been using drugs since the age of nine, 10 years old, and we’re talking about hardcore drugs. We’re talking about heroin,” Santiago said.

Santiago decided he wanted a better future. He went to barber school. He now has an RV where he gives haircuts to those experiencing homelessness.

The chair in Santiago’s RV fills with stories of trauma from those who feel trapped.

His goal is to offer help.

Santiago has taken his RV to Baltimore, Las Vegas, and numerous cities in between. He connects people with treatment and transition centers and sees them through recovery.

Santiago honors those he serves by meeting them where they are— listening and supporting them.

“Even something as simple as just asking someone, ‘Hey, man, how’s your day going?’ means so much to them because you don’t have people that’s talking to them at all or at least treating them like they’re human,” Santiago said. “They leave with a lot of dignity. They leave with a lot of confidence. They’re not giving me regular hugs. They give me hugs, like, 'I don’t want to let you go' kind of hugs. And I’m always OK with it because I know, like, they need someone.”