Give what you got

A story of how haircuts can feed the soul.

Barber & Co barber Alysha Osborne founded 2 Paycheques Away, a non-profit organization that provides free haircuts to residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside while telling their stories through portrait photography.

Everyone has a strategy. It’s a common scenario: you’re walking down the sidewalk minding your own business and generally feeling good about your life choices when a man steps toward you, his hands extended palms up in the international symbol for “please give.”

Some pass by unchecked without so much as a break in stride, some offer a headshake and a muttered apology, and others stop to listen and give what they can. Alysha Osborne’s strategy in this situation is slightly different, especially when she’s in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES). Here, she always stops and listens, and often she’ll give a dollar or two if asked, but then she does something that almost no one else does: she offers them a haircut.

Last year, the 30-year-old barber and musician started 2 Paycheques Away, a non-profit initiative that provides free haircuts to men and women in the DTES. In a small, windowless room at the back of Working Gear, another volunteer organization that provides clothing and other resources for men re-entering the workforce, is Osborne’s shop and the 2 Paycheques Away headquarters. It’s decorated with a barber chair and a full professional setup of clippers, combs, scissors and other essential gear donated by one of their sponsors, Barber & Co; a large standing mirror sourced by Osborne herself; and at the back of the room, a makeshift studio—lights and backdrop included—where photographer and business partner Mihailo Subotic captures before, during and after photos of those willing to face the lens.  

Because 2 Paycheques Away is about more than free fades to help get you paid; it’s about creating art that challenges peoples’ perspective of the DTES and the personalities that live there. For Osborne, the divide between the people of Vancouver’s DTES and the rest of us is something that desperately needs closing. “I wanted people to be able to look at the project and realize that we are part of the problem,” she says. “Like how come if the person from the before photo walked up to you, you would be apprehensive, but if it was the person from the after photo there wouldn’t be a problem? And we haven’t done anything. There’s no editing or anything. It’s just a haircut, but that makes a big difference.”

By capturing brief biographies and honest, unfiltered portraits of the people she connects with, Osborne is hoping to help to bridge this divide. Humanization is the key to compassion, a lesson she learned first hand with a step mother who struggled with addiction, fell into prostitution and whose life was eventually claimed by the lifestyle. The experience developed in Osborne a drive to give back to this community that she felt was so consistently misunderstood and misrepresented, but it took time to fully form. It was during a 2017 trip to Las Vegas for a barbering competition, almost seven years exactly after her step mother passed away, that the idea for 2 Paycheques Away finally came into focus.

“I remember seeing the pictures up on the big screen of everyone’s before and after transformation…I had a meltdown mid-show,” says Osborne. “I just started crying because all of a sudden I knew what I was going to do, I knew how I was going go give back.”

After a couple weeks of planning, conceptualizing, and most importantly, finding a photographer whose vision and enthusiasm matched her own, she set to work, vowing to dedicate one evening a week for a year to the cause.

“2 Paycheques Away is the perfect title for this because it helps people realize that they’re not that different,” she says. “Just because you’ve had better luck than somebody else doesn’t mean you’re better than them. That’s something that a lot of people forget.”

Business started slowly. At first, Osborne cut and coloured peoples’ hair from the back of a friend’s salon, using a second set of barber tools she’d purchased herself. Once, when the salon wasn’t available last minute, she took her appointments in the backyard. When she missed a day, she made up for it the week after. Momentum carried and soon they were offered a spot in Working Gear, next to the Powell Street Getaway in the heart of the DTES.

Today, haircuts are administered on a first come first serve basis, with many of the men and women who walk through Working Gear’s doors learning right then and there that there’s a barber in the back and ‘would you like a chop?’. Others are notified by their social workers and come with their do’s already washed and combed. On slow days, Osborne walks the six feet over to the Powell Street Getaway and makes her announcement there: “Hey guys, I’m doing cuts next door, so if anyone wants one come on over.”

Naturally, not everyone who bites on a complimentary little off the top feels like telling their life story to a stranger and posing for photos to be showcased online and in print. Point a camera at ten random people at Costco and eight of them will probably tell you to fuck off. Osborne estimates that in her barber chair, with the casual barbershop chit chat flowing, about 25 per cent of people agree to participate in the project.

“There’s a sense of intimacy when someone is touching you for that long,” she says. “You need to trust them…and this is coming from people who don’t necessarily trust anybody.”

In mid July of this year, Osborne achieved her goal of working on the business one evening a week for a year. Now she’s taking a step back, out from behind the scissors, and focussing her energy on packaging the content they’ve captured over the year and 200-plus haircuts into a coffee table book, which will be showcased at a gallery event at The Penthouse on Nelson and Seymour in Vancouver on September 23. The company, now incorporated as a non-profit, continues to operate with a number of barbers in training who require hours to complete their programs. It’s a machine that Osborne, with her passion, tenacity and good barbering skills, helped design and switch on, but that is now cranked up and running on its own, unwilling to stop even if she wanted it to.

The future of 2 Paycheques Away is unclear, much like that of Vancouver’s DTES, but Osborne’s strategy when traversing the neighbourhood remains the same: stop, listen, and give what you can. And then offer a haircut.


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