He’s a high-end stylist. He can charge hundreds of dollars for a single haircut. He’s got a celebrity clientele. And he spends his Sundays giving free haircuts to the homeless.
I’ve been seeing variations of this man’s story since sometime in September. Everyone, from People Magazine to Buzzfeed, has been talking about him. It’s a story that has gone – and continues to go – viral. Just earlier this week, the New York Times ran a piece on him and his work with the homeless.
I love stories like this. I really do. I love anything that reminds us that we can talk about people other than Kim Kardashian and the Royal Couple. I love pieces that can shed light on things that people don’t usually talk about and on situations that usually go under the radar.
I love stories that remind us that there is always something you can do. It doesn’t matter if you run a small business, if you’re part of a legal team, or if you cut people’s hair. There is always something you can do to help those who need it. Whatever your skillset, you can use it to make the world a little bit better.
And I love stories that could potentially get people out there to volunteer. If a story like this can get even one person to spend an hour or two at a soup kitchen or an animal shelter or anything that tugs at their heart, then, yes – please – run a thousand stories like this, all day, every day. Break the internet by sharing these stories as much as our social media hearts can handle.
But – to be honest – it’s incredibly bittersweet for me.
Around the same time Mark Bustos’ story was starting to go viral, a homeless shelter in Boston also made national headlines. Up until August of this year, the Long Island Shelter – so named because of its location on one of the Boston Harbor Islands – was Boston’s largest homeless shelter. Long Island was home to 400 homeless men and women, numerous recovery and rehabilitation programs, a prison re-entry program – it was a lot of things to a lot of people.
This past August, the city deemed the bridge connecting Long Island to Boston structurally unsound. It’s a situation I’m familiar with: the original bridge in my hometown was also deemed structurally unsound. To fix this problem, they erected a temporary bridge next to the original one, keeping the connection between towns as Massachusetts built a brand new, structurally sound bridge.
I recognize that it’s not an identical situation. I also recognize that it’s incredibly expensive to repair or replace bridges. But I can safely assume that, had there been anything else on that island – luxury condos, retail, tourist attractions – there would’ve been a plan in place to remedy the situation with as little shake-up as possible. Instead, they shut the entire operation down with barely any provisions in place. It was heart-wrenching to read about it: the confusion and the panic, people scrambling to help those displaced and those who were falling through the cracks. One nurse talked about watching some of her patients walk off into the darkness, likely to relapse as soon as they reached mainland.
Well, actually, that was a lie. A blatant lie.
No, not the part about the nurse, or the part where everything closed down over something as frustrating as bridge issues, but the part where this made national headlines. That was a lie. It never did. Aside from a few local op-ed pieces, a few snippets about the protests and after-the-fact planning, the whole thing really hadn’t garnered much attention.
Much like, aside from that quick sound bite about the nurse’s lost patients, there will never be an article about that nurse – as there will probably never be a viral piece on anyone else who devoted or continues to devote their lives and careers to helping the Long Island homeless.
This is not me saying that we should never enjoy and appreciate stories like the one about Mark Bustos. I can’t stress enough how much I love hearing about things like this. Any act of charity is worthy of its own viral article in my eyes. In this day and age, anything that gives attention where attention is due is precious and priceless. The last thing I would ever want to do is invalidate one person’s charity because other people’s charity goes unnoticed.
My concern is that we prefer these small pieces at the expense of any other type of piece on the homeless. We want to read about the chic stylist who gives free haircuts. We want to watch a 30-second YouTube clip where a guy gives a homeless man a winning scratch ticket. But we don’t want to read about the operations helping out on a full-time basis. We don’t want to read about the people who work in and run shelters, centers, programs, day in and day out. We prefer the cutesy stories over the ones about frustration and sacrifice – because those stories are a reminder that we need a whole lot more than winning scratch tickets and haircuts to solve an incredibly complicated and deep-seated problem.
And we really don’t like to be reminded of that.
We live in a culture of quick fixes. Whatever the answer is, we want it fast, easy, and now. And if it can’t be that, we don’t want to hear about it. We want to smile at an 800-word human-interest piece, ignoring the very fundamental issues that create homelessness in the first place. We prefer our newsfeed the way we prefer solutions: quick and digestible.
You can’t solve homelessness with a haircut. You can’t even solve one person’s homelessness with a haircut. It is a tremendous help, and it is a beautiful and lovely place to start. But it is not the finish line. It’s not even a mile marker. And yet we’re stuck on those lovely places to start because the long-term solutions don’t make for good Facebook posts. We’re stuck on the stigmas surrounding mental illness and addiction, so we’d rather focus on something cute than reevaluate how we think about homelessness.
I would rather just enjoy the story of a hairstylist giving back – fully and without any bittersweet feelings – and go on with my merry day. I really would. I’d like to naively shrug my shoulders at the absence of articles about the more nuanced, intricate, and ongoing actions, saying something akin to, “But they don’t do it for the recognition, anyway.”
That would make life a lot easier. It really would. But life isn’t easy. Neither is finding shelter and long-term solutions for those 400 displaced people – or for the uncountable number of homeless people in the United States on any given day.