The San Diego Union Tribute
Gary Warth
August 12, 2017

Some said they sleep wherever they can most nights. “Cat baths” in gas station sinks take the place of showers, and haircuts are a luxury they usually can’t afford.

But over the past month, dozens of homeless people have been getting warm showers and haircuts for free at St. Patrick Catholic Church’s Father Raymond Moore Hall in Carlsbad.

“I look like a shaggy dog,” said John Nelson, whose thick gray beard partially obscured his mouth and made him appear older than his 57 years.

Nelson then settled into the makeshift barber chair at the church hall as stylist Kelly Cardenas set to work on his graying mane, engaging in light banter as he would any other client in his salon.

Nelson and others at the church hall likely have no clue that Cardenas usually charges $200 for a haircut, and he owns salons in Carlsbad, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and Chicago. His clients have included singer Miley Cyrus, actor Joe Manganiello, rapper Snoop Dogg, Dancing with the Stars personality Chelsie Hightower, musician Steve Aoki, and dancers Keone and Mari Madrid, among other celebrities.

On Tuesday, Cardenas sounded like he was the one coming out ahead by donating his time.

“Seeing John, it almost brings tears to my eyes, spending time with him and realizing that I’m a couple of decisions away from being where John is, and he's a couple of decisions from being where I am,” Cardenas said. “It’s very comforting to be around that.”

Since last July, Cardenas and stylists Ryan Sullivan and Olivia Johanson from his Carlsbad studio have been spending a few hours on the second and fourth Tuesday of the month at the church hall to give haircuts to the homeless, who also show up for free showers through the program Showers of Blessings.

“That’s really nice” Nelson said as he looked in a mirror after his haircut.

“You’re the transformation of the day,” Cardenas said of Nelson, who has been homeless for two years.

Nelson said he sleeps wherever he can find a spot to be undisturbed in Carlsbad, and he would like to get a job. Freshly showered and with his beard trimmed and hair cut, Nelson said he felt anew, and hoped it would improve his chance at finding work.

He heard about the showers and haircuts through word of mouth, and the news has spread in the month the program has been in operation. A man who appeared about 30 years old didn’t want to give his name, but said he also was looking for work, and he hoped a fresh haircut would help.

A woman with short hair asked for a trim and had Johanson touch up a wig she likes to wear. Most of the clients were men, and many appeared overdue for a trim.

“I knew this would be something that would make their lives a little easier, and show them that we want to help out,” said St. Patrick’s parishioner Chris Durnan, who helped bring Showers of Blessings to the church in March after learning about it during an Interfaith Community Services meeting on the homeless earlier this year.

Mobile shower programs for homeless people are rare, but San Diego County has at least two, including one run by the nonprofit Think Dignity.

The Episcopal Diocese of San Diego launched the mobile shower program Showers of Blessing about three years ago, and it lets other churches use it when it’s free.

Once the shower program began, St. Patrick’s also wanted to provide haircuts to the homeless and reached out to about 30 area salons. None answered, but someone at the church called on Cardenas after seeing a magazine article about charity work done by his studio. He quickly responded.

“We want to do this because it comes from the heart, and we can affect people like John,” Cardenas said. “One of the things that (Paul Mitchell Systems co-founder) John Paul DeJoria said to me early on was that giving back is the rent that you pay for living on this earth.”

About 30 people show up for the showers, and half also get haircuts. Of those, about two-thirds are men.

Socorro Anderson, the community coordinator for Raymond Moore Hall, said she has been talking to the homeless people who show up for the showers and haircuts to find out what other services they may need.

She sees the Carlsbad homeless population growing, and said she would like to provide a mental health professional on site during shower days to help with their clients’ issues.

The shower and haircut program has been a success in helping the homeless people in both their self-esteem and job prospects, she said.

“I've seen the difference in the men when they leave, and a lot of them return,” she said. "We’ve had a few successes, with people who have gone out and gotten a job.”

Randy Cornett, 57, is homeless and appreciates the chance to get a regular hot shower and haircut.

“I take pride in my hygiene,” he said. “I don't like to be dirty.”

Cornett looked casual, wearing shorts and a t-shirt as he walked into the hall with the help of a walking stick he uses because of a bad hip and leg problem.

But he also looked somewhat dapper and well-groomed, having become a regular client and returning every other week.

Before discovering the service, Cornett said his hair was getting long and uncomfortably hot, and his girlfriend prefers him to look a bit more refined.

He once was a truck driver, he said but lost his job in 2004 after his father died and his boss wouldn’t give him time off to travel to Pennsylvania to arrange funeral services. He lost his license because of cataracts, and he’s been on the street the past two years.

“I'm not a drug addict, and I’m not a drunk,” he said, stressing that people often make the wrong assumptions about the homeless.

“People need help,” he said. “Not all homeless are bad people. There are families and kids out here, homeless and hungry.”

At the end of his shift Tuesday morning, Cardenas said Nelson may be one of the most noticeable transformations he’s seen.

Cardenas Salon stylist Johanson has given haircuts to about 20 homeless people and said the experience has been humbling.

“To see them have a complete energy change and the way that they view themselves after a haircut is such a rewarding feeling,” she said. “They look at themselves in the mirror after a haircut and have a complete mind-shift. You can see it in their face how they light up.”