Peninsula man cuts short his career to help homeless people put best face forward

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A Redwood City man changed his career path – from running Stanford’s Digital Language Lab to going to beauty school – so he could serve his community in a way that’s more meaningful to him.

Joseph Kautz started giving free haircuts for homeless people in 2019, after he had a brush with professionals outside a Seattle hygiene center. He said they treated people without housing like they were invisible.

“Like they were walking through a minefield, stepping over them and not really seeing them,” Kautz explained. “And that kind of irked me.”

An idea buzzed in his head: Why not serve those in need right there?

“So I said, ‘Do you need someone to cut hair?’ They said, ‘Oh we need someone so badly,'” Kautz said.

NOMINATE A JEFFERSON AWARDS HERO

Jump ahead to 2021, Kautz began Tent City Barbers which gives free haircuts to people experiencing homelessness in the Bay Area.

“Our motto at Tent City Barbers is ‘Beauty will save the world,’ which is a line from a Dostoyevsky novel,” he said.

Kautz’s Redwood City-based nonprofit mirrors his heart for giving. He spent 15 years running Stanford’s Digital Language Lab but wanted a change. He became a certified cosmetologist and crowd-funded for equipment. 

Kautz now offers more than a makeover: he creates a safe space for sheer comfort and care.

“I have clients that I cut their hair and the next week I’m told they overdosed or they pass away so I take this very seriously because it may be the very last haircut this person ever gets,” he said.

LEARN MORE: Jefferson Awards for Public Service 

So far, Tent City Barbers has provided about 1,500 free haircuts. When Kautz is not working as a high school substitute teacher, he transports his mobile salon to nonprofits.

On a recent afternoon, he pitched his tent at Martha’s Kitchen in San Jose, where people lined up for a free hot meal, mobile showers, and laundry services. 

“This is our way of changing the world,” Kautz said.

“He’s very compassionate,” said Anthony Leon. “It gave me motivation, inspires me because I’ve got business meetings during the week I’ve got to attend,” Leon said.

To scale the nonprofit, Kautz is now inviting newly licensed talent from beauty schools onto his team. They need real-world training and mentoring and the unhoused need haircuts, so Kautz says it’s a win-win.  

Kautz says he gives his best so people can look their best. Often, they leave with a smile and style that’s a cut above the rest.

So for giving free haircuts to the unhoused through Tent CIty Barbers, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Joseph Kautz.

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