Hair salon clips in to help the homeless

Jesse Myers trims Clarence Briscoe's beard at the shelter at Arch Street United Methodist Church. Salon owner Nick Berardi and his stylists have cut hair there twice since December.
Jesse Myers trims Clarence Briscoe's beard at the shelter at Arch Street United Methodist Church. Salon owner Nick Berardi and his stylists have cut hair there twice since December. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 29, 2014

Nick Berardi's hair salon is seven blocks and a world away from the homeless shelter in a church basement on Broad Street, just a block north of City Hall.

Every week, Berardi and his stylists handle more than 400 customers. Clients pay top dollar for cuts or color, with an average bill of $100.

For Clarence Briscoe, 71, home is a cot at the Arch Street United Methodist Church. He'd still have an apartment in Northeast Philadelphia if he had not lost a $200-a-month rent subsidy.

But the gulf between the hair salon and the shelter has narrowed because of a conversation between Berardi and one of his clients.

Call it the power of the chair - the stylist's chair.

Berardi, 65, who opened the Richard Nicholas Hair Studio at 1716 Sansom St. 32 years ago, knows one of two things happens when someone sits in his chair.

"Either people immediately want to know all about you," Berardi says, "or they want to tell you all about them."

One of client worked with the homeless, and she was a talker.

While getting her hair cut, Stephanie Sena, a college history professor, told her stylist about the Student-Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia. She launched the group three years ago. Today, students from local colleges run the Arch Street shelter, which houses 25 men from November to April.

The stylist expressed interest. Encouraged, Sena took a chance and posted a message in December on the salon's Facebook page, asking if it could help.

Berardi answered quickly: "What do you need?"

Haircuts.

"Yeah, we'll do it," Berardi replied. "It's Christmas!"

When Berardi talks, his hands and arms rotate like propellers, fueled by enthusiasm. "We give $100 haircuts here," he said. "Around the corner, you can get a $60 lunch. And on Broad Street, someone is living in a basement."

It wasn't that he had been blind to the homeless problem. After all, he had worked in Center City for more than four decades.

But it took a client to show him how he could help.

Twice since December, Berardi and his stylists have cut hair for the men at the Arch Street shelter. He has promised to return every other week when the shelter reopens in the fall.

He and his staff, meanwhile, have bought the shelter a new washer and dryer.

To help the students with their mission next year, Berardi will host a fund-raiser at his salon on May 4 - an exhibit of portraits taken at a soup kitchen by a 90-year-old photographer. Anyone who contributes to the Student-Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia will get a free cut the next day.

"We have to be aware," Berardi said. "The lightbulb has to go off. This is what's going on."

The church shelter caters to men who resist moving into big city shelters.

The first time Berardi visited to cut hair free, about two dozen men took up the offer.

Metal folding chairs served as styling chairs. "It felt just like the salon," Berardi said. "All the guys were talking."

Berardi and three stylists made a return visit on a recent night, but the shelter had only a handful of people. It was closing the next day for the season and would not reopen until fall.

Spreading out his scissors and clippers on a table, Joey Berardi, the owner's 31-year-old son, pulled out a chair for Perry Roberson, 64.

As his father had taught him, the younger stylist waited to see whether Roberson was a talker or listener.

"How'd you end up on the streets?" he asked.

Roberson, it turned out, was a talker. He slid off his black knit cap to reveal a patchwork of hair and pink scars on his head. "Got those when I was nine months old," he said. "Burns."

Up from Florida, Roberson went on to say he had been staying with a relative but outlived his welcome. He said he would be sleeping on cardboard at the train station if he did not have a cot at the shelter.

Joey Berardi listened. When the stylist was finished, Roberson rubbed his hand over his head. "I feel good."

Joey Berardi later said the feeling was mutual.

"If you give someone a dollar on the street, you wonder, did you help? Not help? The thing about this is I know I'm helping."

"It feels good to talk to the guys and see where they come from."


jlin@phillynews.com

215-854-5659 @j_linq

www.inquirer.com/doubledown

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