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Published June 12 2010

Former homeless man becomes barber after life-changing haircut

Tyler Workman could really use the free haircut.

His tousled Mohawk didn’t do him any favors. And, he found, there’s something about plopping in a hairdresser chair after you’ve been lugging a suitcase full of possessions, the specter of addiction and a deep sense of failure.

Workman, 23, got the haircut at a 2008 Fargo event linking homeless people with services they need. He also got an idea.

He mulled it over for a while. At times, he thought about giving up on it. But on Friday, Workman graduated from Fargo’s Moler Barber College after a 10-month apprenticeship. In May, Workman returned to the Project Homeless Connect event at the Fargodome to dispense free haircuts – and an unlikely success story.

“I never thought I could be anything,” he says. “Nobody does when you live in a homeless shelter.”

In fall 2008, Workman rode a bike to Project Connect from the New Life Center’s homeless shelter in Fargo. He went reluctantly.

“I am already surrounded by homeless people, people who have no hope,” he told his case worker. “Why do I want to go and hang out with more homeless people?”

But there was hope. Workman landed in Fargo months earlier after a year of crisscrossing the country that left him with no sense of direction. After a brief stint in a psychiatric ward, he was finally taking meds for a mental illness that made it impossible to hold down a job. He was clean.

As soon as he showed up at the event, he started spotting people with uncannily well-groomed hair.

Free haircuts by Moler and MJ Capelli Family Hair Salons have been a staple of Homeless Connect, says Laurie Baker, executive director of the Fargo-Moorhead Coalition for Homeless Persons. The coalition puts on the event, which offers medical and dental services, job tips and legal help.

Organizers occasionally hear stories about participants who got a cut and a new coat at the event – and a job a few days later.

Workman loved the fresh haircut. But what really made an impression was the hairdresser’s upbeat manner and the care she took to trace the zigzag design he asked for along his neck.

“There’s something about getting a haircut,” he says. “It changes your day when somebody pays attention to you.”

This would be a fun job, he thought.

Eventually, Workman moved into a one-bedroom apartment and got a job at a gas station. He bought his first car. But the hairdresser idea lingered in the back of his mind. He experimented with cutting patterns in his own hair.

He signed up for the Barber College 10 months ago, after he happened to drive by it. His brother lent him the $100 application fee.

The first few weeks, he was sure he’d never get the hang of cutting hair. Mary Cannon, the owner, kept telling him, “It’s not hard. It’s a challenge. Put on your happy face for customers.”

These days, he comes in early to have a bowl of cereal and meditate for 20 minutes in the quiet shop on Eighth Street just off Main Avenue. He has a

gift for striking up a conversation with anyone who plops down in his chair. He looks at peace as white hairs tumble down his black plastic poncho to the floor.

“It’s like a Zen thing,” he says. “It calms my mind. It centers me, just knowing I am doing something, that I am being productive.”

Later this summer, Workman is headed to his hometown of Minot, N.D., where he lined up a job.

In May, he gave a dozen haircuts at Homeless Connect. Again, he was reluctant to go: A haircut seemed such a measly offering to people he knew could use a lot of help. But then, a 40-something man with longish hair sat on his chair. Workman suggested parting the hair on the side instead of the middle and cleaned up his neck.

“In 10 months here, I haven’t had such a great reaction to a haircut,” he recalls. “It was a totally new look for him.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529