When Joseph Kautz, 56, sets up his mobile salon, he likes to give his clients the full, luxury treatment.
“A lot of [my clients] are pretty desperate for some pampering. They haven't had a professional haircut in years,” said the Redwood City resident. “I want them to have the olfactory experience of expensive products that they’d get in a high-end salon.”
Kautz, a certified cosmetologist who works full-time at Great Clips in Sharon Heights, spends his free time giving haircuts to unhoused people throughout the Redwood City community. What began as a hobby has since become Tent City Barbers, a newly registered nonprofit. Haircuts are available to anyone in need, often right in the encampment where people reside.
Most importantly, the price is unbeatable: free.
“Twenty dollars is not a lot of money,” Kautz said. “Unless you don’t have $20.”
Since moving to Redwood City in October, Kautz has been focused on getting the word out to homeless residents about his services. Establishing connections in a new community takes time, he said, since his clientele are often transient, and encampments tend to be off the beaten path.
Still, the need within the local community is great.
By an April 30 count, Redwood City, which has the largest homeless population in the County, has 111 unsheltered residents, not including people living in RVs or other vehicles. Of those surveyed, 38 became homeless during the pandemic, and 31 people reported being unhoused for the first time.
And with some 20 encampments in Redwood City alone, Kautz says he already has his hands full. With help from a friend, Deborah Orler, who delivers food to encampments, he’s been making the rounds and handing out business cards.
“Just doing that is a significant amount of work,” he said.
A new chapter in Redwood City
Kautz said he hopes to build a more solid presence in Redwood City, starting with better equipment. He wants to upgrade his chair and recently purchased a tent awning, which he wants to decorate with art to create a more salon-like environment.
Kautz is also trying to grow his team, which currently includes himself and Pam Decharo, Owner of Hair International, his “director at large.” He’s looking to hire an IT specialist as well as more hairstylists.
“It’s called ‘Tent City Barbers’—barbers plural—because I’d ultimately like to get other people involved,” he said.
Just this week, he was approved to set up his salon at the Fair Oaks Community Center on Wednesdays where he’ll work with Dignity on Wheels, a shower and laundry trailer service first launched in Redwood City in 2015. Having this standing date will give some stability to his scheduling, he said, while making it easier for people to come to him.
Still, he plans to continue his regular visits to local encampments. “My heart is in being in the field,” he said.
Acknowledging the often unreliable nature of working with unhoused folks, many of whom come and go over time, Kautz takes a pragmatic approach, preferring not to elaborate on his relationships with clients, calling the relationship between clients and hairdressers “sacred.”
Recently he stopped by a tent with two young women, in their 20s and 30s, neither of whom had received a professional trim in years. He gave one woman a layered bob, right there next to her tent.
As he said: “Just because they’re having a hard time, they still deserve to look their best.”
A second career
For Kautz, who spent 30 years in academia, much of it at Stanford’s Digital Language Lab, attending cosmetology school in 2016 was a career pivot—and a way for him to honor his childhood love for hair.
“When I was 6 years old I would do hair shows for my cousins who came to visit,” he said, describing 70s-style, impromptu haircuts. “I would style their hair and do hair shows for my family.”
However, Kautz said his decision to become a hairstylist stemmed from a commitment to helping marginalized people.
“Part of the reason I went to beauty school in the first place was to be able to provide these services to the homeless,” he said. “It was a bucket list item.”
After graduating from beauty school at College of San Mateo, he moved to Seattle where he came across a homeless shelter that offered people a place to do laundry, shower and access other services. He decided to set up a mobile salon and soon found himself doing up to 15 haircuts a day, sometimes at a table in the middle of a camp, sometimes in his car when it was raining.
“It’s kind of guerrilla hairdressing,” he said.
In the roughly two years that he’s been working as a volunteer hairdresser, or a “one-man salon,” as he calls himself, Kautz estimates he’s completed hundreds of free ‘dos. His equipment, which includes a professional field kit (like the kind used at bridal parties), high-end styling products and a chair, is minimal. But for his clients, no ask is too big or small—though he does reserve the right to offer his own professional opinions.
“I like to keep it very simple, to get these haircuts knocked out. It’s very practical,” he said.
Ultimately, as with any other salon-goer, “It’s about respecting their wishes … If they ask to shave off all their hair, that’s what I do. That’s what works for them,.” he said.
Still, no matter how simple, he said a fresh cut can be a transformative experience for his clients.
For some, it may be the first professional cut in years. For others, it helps them look and feel presentable for their upcoming job interview.
“Hair is a very powerful thing,” he said. “We tap into something kind of eternal when we help a person look their best.”
Leah Worthington is the lead reporter at the Redwood City Pulse. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter, and by phone at 650-888-3794. To read more stories about Redwood City, subscribe to our daily Express newsletter on rwcpulse.com.