Once homeless himself, this barber is paying it forward with free haircuts
The lights are soft, and the sounds of jazz can be heard inside Mr. GroomRoom Barber Shop.
William Winters, the owner of the shop on Pettigrew Street in Southeast Raleigh, likes it this way. Peaceful.
From the shop’s entrance, Winters can glimpse the site where he used to sleep beneath a tree next to the liquor store on New Bern Avenue. Back then, he was homeless and walked Raleigh’s streets like they were hallways.
Now, a decade after he got off the streets and and two years after he opened Mr. GroomRoom, Winters gives back to the homeless by offering them free haircuts, shaves and hot-towel facials.
“I was in the same position they are in,” said Winters, 53, who grew up in Southeast Raleigh. “I was homeless and used drugs and alcohol. I chose to go to the dark side, to experience it, and I got caught out there.”
His brother, Gary Hooker Sr., said Winters “used to steal from us, squander money, borrow money and use it to get drugs.”
“I had to be the big brother because mine wasn’t acting like one,” said Hooker, 47. “It was the typical story of a drug addict.”
Time helped heal the family, said Hooker, recalling an incident when he and his wife blocked Winters from entering their home.
“Don’t tell me what’s on your mind, show me what you want me to see,” Hooker recalled saying. “Eventually, his words and thoughts started changing. He was becoming a glimmer of the person who had dropped off some 25 odd years earlier.”
From jail cells and lonely streets, Winters dreamed of “bringing the services of North Raleigh to our side of town at a reasonable price.” He knew his community, predominantly African-American, needed more of what was happening in wealthier parts of Raleigh.
Winters’ dream – and the reality of what kept him from it – led him to a recovery program with Oxford House, a sober-living company with houses throughout North Carolina. Residents pay to stay there and can be forced to leave if they relapse.
As Winters recovered from his addiction, he attended barber school, where he was dubbed Mr. GroomRoom.
He started offering free haircuts to the homeless outside the Salvation Army in Raleigh, setting up a chair and bringing his clippers.
Two years ago this month, he opened his barber shop. Now two other barbers and a stylist volunteer to help groom homeless men and women from noon to 3 p.m. every other Sunday. Volunteers with the K9 Motorcycle Club use vans to transport people staying in homeless shelters to and from the shop.
The outreach was just in time for Greg Devone, 57, who had started a new job.
“This is a blessing,” he said on a recent Sunday. “It’s truly a blessing to be here.”
Edna Howard, 47, and Inez Reid, 59, said they also appreciated the chance to be pampered. The shop also offers free shampoos, deep conditioning and new styles.
“At the shelter, there are no outlets in the bathroom, so we have to do our hair in the laundry room – and there are no mirrors in there,” Howard said. “When my hair is done, I feel better looking for jobs.”
Reid said she’s been longing for some attention to her shoulder-length, salt-and-pepper dreadlocks. She called Winters’ generosity that of a “living angel.”
“Isn’t God good?” she asked.
Winters wants to inspire others.
“Just because you went down a path doesn’t mean you can’t come off that road,” he said. “I know how it is and want them to see for themselves how it can be, so I work hard every day.”
Hooker, who calls his brother’s turn-around “a redemption,” partnered with Winters to form Mr. GroomRoom LLC. The company is dedicated to Southeast Raleigh initiatives “to give back to the part of town that did so much for us when we were youth,” he said.
Hooker also said too many people affected by the crack epidemic in the 1980s were sent to jail. The current opioid crisis, he said, is seen more as a mental-health issue in which addicts are sent to treatment centers instead of jail cells.
“The same sympathy should have been given during the crack epidemic,” Hooker said.
Winters now tries to make his business a special place in his neighborhood. He prefers to steer clear of the smack talk and “trap music” often heard in barber shops and other places.
“I want Mr. GroomRoom to be a safe haven, a place where the topic of conversation is educational, something you can take with you,” he said. “I really want to bring the tradition back where dads bring their sons to the barber shop without worrying about what they might hear and where moms are comfortable bringing them, too.”
Lori D. R. Wiggins is a correspondent for The News & Observer. Email her at email@example.com.