There’s a swing in David Hornsby’s stride as he walks up to a barber’s chair, small metal briefcase in hand.
Today the 25-year-old aspiring barber sports stylish black slacks and firetruck-red hair tucked under a black baseball cap. But that belies a reserved personality and the body language of someone who is not always comfortable being the center of attention.
Today, that awkwardness fades away when Hornsby opens a case that contains the tools of his trade. Aside from the standard-issue scissors, brush and razors, he’s got something more important these days — a confidence that grows stronger when he welcomes a client into the chair.
Hornsby’s hands are soon a busy whir, shaving a line of hair off his client’s temple before gently tilting the man’s head to get the perfect angle.
“When I’m in my zone of art, cutting hair, everything is blocked out, I don’t pay attention to no one else,” Hornsby said. “It’s where I like to be.”
Over the last year, Hornsby has been coming three or four times a week to a two-story building on Santa Monica Boulevard in East Hollywood that according to neighborhood lore once served as a studio space for silent movie star Charlie Chaplin. At Precise Barber College, though, there’s little glamour — often just a routine of study and relentless practice. But the new school is helping many homeless youth write a new chapter in their lives by offering them a path into a reliable career. That’s especially important now, as youth homelessness in Los Angeles County has surged by 24 percent over the last year (though the agency that tracks that data says that part of the jump is due to better data reporting).
A social enterprise project created in partnership with homeless youth provider Covenant House California, Precise Barber College is hoping to serve more young people like Hornsby. After a tumultuous and bitter ride through the foster care system and years spent bouncing around the streets, Hornsby is locked in on the pursuit of a new-found passion for cutting and styling hair.
“When I first got this opportunity, I wasn’t really taking it too serious — I thought I would just try it out for a couple weeks,” Hornsby said during a class break last month. “But I’m in love with this, everything I’m doing. Now I think of my future completely differently than I used to. I can imagine a place for me in a year or two through this career.”
‘The Doctors Said I Might Not Walk Again’
The idea for the Precise Barber College was born in a barber’s chair, suitably enough. About three years ago, Covenant House California CEO Bill Bedrossian was getting his usual trim at Gabe Torres’ Long Beach barber shop when he first learned about Torres’ idea to help others.
In 2015, Torres felt an eerie tingling on his right side while he was cutting hair. Later that day at the hospital, doctors told him that one of his veins near his brain had ruptured. Torres would need immediate surgery.
“It changed my world,” Torres said. “The doctors said I might not walk again and wouldn’t be cutting hair. This is all I’ve been doing my entire life — everybody knows me as Gabe the Barber and to that point, I had been successful enough to have seven barbers working under me in a fully staffed shop.”
After the operation, Torres was walking within a week and after a while, found his way back to his barber’s station. Within the year, he was back to his old routine. But the experience left him with a desire to pass on the secrets of his craft, which has provided a stable livelihood for Torres and his family for the past 17 years, even without a college degree.
“When I started doing this, it wasn’t the cool, popular thing to do like it is nowadays,” said Torres, 37. “It was more a thing you could do because you were too lazy to go to school, you just got out of jail. It was frowned upon, looked down upon a little bit. But being successful, it really drove me to want to teach other people how to be successful at it.”
A Popular Career
These days, the barbering profession is booming, and the male-grooming services are one of the nation’s fastest growing labor markets. Bedrossian, Torres’ regular client and a mentor, recognized an opportunity to provide an important pathway for the young people he works with at Covenant House’s Hollywood homeless youth shelter and transitional housing programs.
“They need career paths, not just jobs,” Bedrossian said. “Being a barber is a real opportunity to have a career that can financially sustain you. It’s a skill they can take with them no matter where they live.”
There’s a big need for programs that offer a leg up to homeless youth in L.A. The county’s most recent homeless count released in June found that more than 3,600 youth ages 18 to 24 are currently experiencing homelessness, with many more living in unstable situations like couch surfing. According to one recent analysis, about one-third of all homeless youth in L.A. were once in the foster care system.
The fact that it does not require a lot of advance schooling is just one reason that a barber program could be especially attractive to many of these youth.
“It’s got a family feel our young people are craving,” Bedrossian said. “Even in their work environment, they get to be part of something that’s deeper than just a job, a familial network. That’s also going to be very appealing to our young people.”
Thanks to a $100,000 grant from the Goldhirsh Foundation and support from Covenant House, Torres has been off and running since October of last year. The school helps aspiring barbers learn the technical skills and knowledge they need to pass the state board exams, including logging 1,500 hours learning how to do everything from perms and haircuts to old-fashioned straight-razor shaves and hair coloring.
Since the school opened, Torres has split his time between his Long Beach barbershop and the college, offering students both his real-world experience and the hands-on mentoring of a friendly older brother. Students come from many different walks of life, but the goal is to offer at least a quarter of the school’s slots for young people attempting to get back on their feet after homelessness.
Aiming to Be a Different Type of Barber
One of those students is Hornsby, who has been with Torres since nearly the beginning. Going to school on a part-time basis while he works, Hornsby is more than halfway through the program. The ability to tap into a newfound love of fashion and art is the biggest draw for him. He’s hoping to be out on his own by early next year, with an eye toward creating eye-catching styles for Hollywood’s most elite personalities.
“I want to be able to cut YouTubers’ hair, actors’ hair,” Hornsby said. “I want to be a different type of barber. I want to go to show events and [have] people look at me as cutting edge.”
These days, as he masters new styles and coloring techniques, Hornsby has been drawn in by the barbering community — he hangs out in barber shops even when he’s not in class. The goal is to soak up as much knowledge as he can from five different mentors, who are teaching different techniques and aspects of the barbering business.
For example, Hornsby is spending time learning how to shoot and edit digital film footage. That’s a critical part of the 21st century barber’s toolbox — the ability to show off your work online, including on social media sites like Instagram. Aside from school, and a day job at Shake Shack, he also works under the tutelage of another barber at Empire, a late-night shop on Hollywood Boulevard, which means that the shy young man is learning how to handle clients from start to finish for the first time.
“I’m taking this more seriously than anything I’ve ever done in my life,” he said.
A Rocky Path Out of Foster Care
Getting to a place where Hornsby was ready to put himself out there wasn’t always so easy. Hornsby exited Colorado’s foster care system at 18, having spent nearly his whole life bouncing from home to home. No parents are listed on his birth certificate, and it wasn’t until fourth or fifth grade that Hornsby said he realized he wasn’t like other kids his age, who went home to the same set of parents every night. Later, he was forced apart from his brother and sister, a painful experience that still tears at him.
At age 18, his social worker gave him years-worth of old mail, including a letter from a family member that included an address in New Mexico, with no phone number. Soon after his 18th birthday, Hornsby gathered his belongings into one backpack and took a bus to New Mexico.
But when he reached the address near Albuquerque, the house there was long-since abandoned. Hornsby had little idea of what to do next — he spent the rest of his money in a couple weeks, mostly on junk food.
“It kind of tore me apart,” he said. “You’re 18 and you don’t really know what to do. That’s where I really fell off. I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know whether I should go back and I didn’t have any of my old caseworkers’ phone numbers.”
Hornsby soon ended up in a children’s playground in a trailer park, sleeping in the covered tube slide. He was awakened one day when a child came down the slide.
Parents at the park threatened him before they realized he was homeless. One of the families offered Hornsby a place to stay in their home. For a few months, he thrived there, bonding with the family’s teenage son, just one year younger than he was. But his luck changed just a few months later.
One night, he was out with the family’s son, the father, the uncle and the father’s friend. After their car was pulled over, police found several pounds of marijuana and cocaine and three guns in the car. Despite having no connection to the stash in the trunk, Hornsby said he was charged and sent to prison for two years.
It was “the worst time of his life,” he said. “The only time I ever had a visitor was my lawyer whenever there was a court date.”
Hornsby drifted for a while in New Mexico after his release, sometimes falling in with the wrong crowd as he tried to get by. After hitching a ride with some friends headed to California for a job, Hornsby chose not to return with them. Sitting by himself on a beach in San Diego, he decided to cut ties to his old life and to start anew in the Golden State. Eventually, he made his way to L.A., staying at the beach in Santa Monica at first before ending up in Hollywood.
Before enrolling in Precise Barber College, he lived in Covenant House’s transitional housing facilities before moving out on his own.
Getting a job had been tricky for Hornsby. Because of his felony conviction, a lot of careers Hornsby sought – law enforcement, firefighting, jobs in the medical field – were closed off to him. Even when he worked his way up at Panera, starting by cleaning off tables, management told him that someone with a felony could never become a manager.
“Everything I was trying to become, I just couldn’t do it because of that,” he said. “I was always put down. There was a tendency for me to think, ‘I should just give up.’”
A New Path
But now, Hornsby sees an opportunity to create a new life for himself. All that’s left is mastering his craft and meeting the standards of the California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology, which grants the licenses that all barbers in the state must earn in order to do business.
For Bedrossian, the change in Hornsby has been profound, bolstered by people at the college like Torres who are around to offer guidance and other support as he steps out into a new world.
“The first 12 months he was at Covenant House, you couldn’t get a word out of the kid,” Bedrossian recalls. “He wouldn’t look you in the eye. He just really had not figured out how to process all his trauma. He’s worked so hard at it, though. I’m so proud of his willingness to work on himself, to create a better vision for himself and take the steps necessary to make that happen.”
Torres of Precise Barber College calls Hornsby an intuitive learner who is easily able to pick up creative concepts right away, though not without a lot of practice — Hornsby had to repeat one type of shave 20 times in a row before he mastered the technique.
“He’s killing it right now,” Torres said. “When it comes to hair coloring and design, he just shines. He’s still raw, but the big thing with this is not having the fear, and he’s just got no fear at all when it comes to trying things out.
“I can’t wait for the day David has his own shop. That’s going to be one of my proudest days, too.”
For now, Hornsby is content to keep working on his craft — learning something new every day. But he doesn’t have too much time to talk.
His next appointment is waiting.
The Hustle is a series from The Chronicle of Social Change that highlights stories about current and former foster youth in the workforce. This summer, we will be sharing stories about young people finding their way in today’s economy, pursuing their passions and getting a leg up in a diverse range of jobs, careers and new endeavors. Stay tuned for the next installment and let us know what you think!