Stuart Stone is busy dusting off the counter when Leanthony Edwards plops into the leather chair in front of him.
“The silver is showing,” Edwards says as he runs a hand over the top of his graying hair and grins at Stone’s reflection in the mirror. Then he starts to talk about California.
He can’t remember just how long he lived there before coming to Utah. “Thirty years,” Edwards guesses.
Stone puts down his rag and listens. The two men have the same conversation every Monday over the quiet buzz of an electric clipper while Stone trims Edwards’ hair. They’ve fallen into the routine over the past two months. But Stone has been doing this much longer: He’s been a barber to Salt Lake City’s homeless population for 24 years.
The room where Stone cuts hair is nestled at the back of the downtown Weigand Homeless Resource Center next to a closet full of cleaning supplies. The walls are bare, except for a single poster that shows a small spruce sprouting from the ground with the message “Determination: It’s the size of one’s will which determines success.”
Stone’s life, though, has been shaped more by whim than will.
He came to Utah in 1964 when his parents moved to Logan from southern Alberta for a job offer. At the time, Stone wasn’t sure what he wanted to do — or where he wanted to be — so he bounced between the United States and Canada trying to figure it out.
A few years later, by chance, he bumped into a friend who was taking classes at Continental Beauty College in Salt Lake City.
“Why don’t you come?” she asked Stone one day.
“Why not?” he said.
And that was it. Stone got his cosmetology license and has been working in salons since the early 1970s.
He and a business partner have run their own place, Salon 267, in Salt Lake City for the past 20 years. Some of Stone’s homeless clients have occasionally shown up there. After leaving the shelter for better housing or a job, they want to pay him back for the years of free haircuts he provided.
Stone, now 70, calls the next name on the Weigand Center’s sign-up sheet. “Brad?” he shouts, adjusting his thin wire glasses. “Brad?” Seconds later a towering man in a bright orange polo walks up clutching a copy of “The Operative.”
Brad Rubsam is Stone’s fifth client of the day, and he eagerly drops his belongings and slides into the chair. He points to his balding head and jokes that he doesn’t “have much up there” anymore.
Stone laughs as he snaps a black cape around Rubsam’s neck and starts combing through the brown hair that’s left.
“So what are we doing?” Stone asks, directing the same question to every client.
“Like a fade,” Rubsam responds. He’s got a job interview at Golden Corral and wants to look professional. It’s the first prospect he’s had in a long time.
Rubsam, 45, was fired from his last post in Indiana working at a factory that prepared food packages for the military. He’d been diagnosed with testicular cancer in January 2014 and needed to take a week off for surgery. When he returned to work, he was told his position had been terminated.
He tried his best to roll with the punches that life seemed to be throwing like a heavyweight boxer. To get treatment where his family lived, Rubsam moved to Utah. Even that didn’t work out.
His relatives moved out of state within months of Rubsam coming to Salt Lake City and starting therapy at Huntsman Cancer Institute. Unexpectedly facing it alone, the medical bills drowned him.
“I had a little bit to survive on, but when my money ran out I ended up at the Rescue Mission [shelter],” Rubsam says.
He’s been there for six months, pouncing on any temporary construction gigs until something more permanent comes along.
“I got bummed out and depressed for a while,” he tells Stone. “I’m slowly getting it back together.”
Like a bartender or a therapist, Stone listens to each story of trial and misfortune. Most of the people who sit in front of him have problems much like Rubsam’s. They got derailed. They got divorced. They got into drugs. They ended up homeless. It wasn’t their plan. It wasn’t where they wanted to be. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
Leanthony Edwards, the 50-year-old who comes to Stone when “the silver is showing,” lost his job with the Utah Transit Authority after seven years. Then he got evicted. Now he stays at The Road Home.
“I guess this is what they call therapeutic, eh?” he says after telling his story to Stone.
The Weigand Center serves about 450 individuals a day — just a fraction of the 10,000 homeless people that state officials estimate live in Salt Lake County.
The sign-up sheet for haircuts — a small clipboard with the names of homeless men and women scrawled shakily in various hands and shades of blue and black pen — usually has more individuals listed on it than Stone can get to in one visit. He does about 12 haircuts each Monday, spending about 20 minutes with a client. Some 16 to 20 people are on the list, though, and more pop into the room to see if he’s got any extra availability.
For most of the people Stone sees, their bad luck and hard times are apparent in their hair. One man with a long, unkempt beard says he’s been “sleeping out in the park or any other place I can find.” Another is so suntanned that when Stone pulls back the man’s shaggy hair from his forehead, it exposes a strip of white skin that starkly contrasts with his red face. A third has hair so knotted and ratty that Stone can’t comb through it and ends up cutting off most of it.
For all the stories he hears, Stone rarely shares his own — but it’s the reason why he’s shown up at the homeless resource center every Monday from 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. for the past two decades.
In 1993, Stone’s boyfriend of 12 years died of AIDS. Stone had tried to help, nursing him at their home and bringing him medication. But it wasn’t enough. It never would have been enough. There was nothing he could have done.
After that, Stone couldn’t stand to be in his house. “My weekends are getting too long,” he would tell his friends. He needed a distraction from the pain.
A woman Stone knew at the time volunteered at the St. Vincent de Paul kitchen, next to the Weigand Center, where homeless individuals can dine and find new clothes or blankets. She encouraged Stone to come help. He did. And he has since.
In a way, Stone says he’s honoring his boyfriend through the service, though he’ll humbly add he returns each week only because he’s “a creature of habit.”
“Before he died,” Stone says, “we talked about how we need to do things for other people.”
Through the years, Stone has gotten a few “regulars” who come over from the shelter for haircuts. One of those is Jack Mower.
“He’s a good barber,” Mower says.
“He has to say that,” Stone quips.
Each day Mower lines up at 2 p.m. at The Road Home to get a bed (though he’s usually too late for a blanket). He naps at Pioneer Park in the morning because, he says, there are often fights and drug deals happening at the shelter at night that make it difficult to sleep.
He first landed there in December 2012 and ticks off the reasons: “poor, disabled, can’t work.” He stayed for four years until he saved enough money to get an apartment. “Things just kind of went south,” though, and Mower returned “for this go around” at The Road Home in March 2017.
“It’s really no life to brag about,” he says. “Every day is pretty much making sure you get free meals. It’s not pleasant. It really isn’t.”
For Mower, 57, the haircut from Stone offers a bit of respite. He comes in once a month for his 20 minutes of “normal” life.
It’s easy to see when someone has visited Stone, says Dennis Kelsch, director of homeless services for Catholic Community Services. Kelsch watches over the Weigand Center from his computer where about 10 video surveillance feeds fill the screen. Those who have cleanly cut hair seem to walk a little taller, he suggests; they “have some human dignity.”
“You can walk down the street and people don’t look at you like you’ve got five heads or six legs,” he says. “When your hair is cut, you look decent.”
Stone considers that his payment.
“When they come in, and you get down and can actually see their face and their smile,” he says, “it’s just like a new person.”
As Mower hops out of the chair, it’s easy to see what Stone means.
“Much better,” Mower says, examining his face in the mirror. “Good for another month.”