Katie Steller styles hair, but she says her real job is creating connections.
“I’m not doing this because hair is my favorite thing,” said Steller, who employs 13 stylists at Minneapolis’ Steller Hair Company. “But what other job, besides being in the medical profession, gives you the chance to sit down and talk to somebody for 30 minutes or three hours and have the safety to touch them and change their appearance and the way they feel?”
Steller, 29, is talking about her salon when she asks that question. It’s a salon that goes the extra mile to make everybody feel comfortable, ranging from people who use wheelchairs to women who wear hijabs. But she could easily be talking about her Red Chair Project, which has given haircuts, sometimes several of them, to more than 20 homeless people in the community.
The project began in 2013 when, facing hurdles to opening her business, she kept walking by her red styling chairs, sitting unused in her living room.
“I grew up in Elliot Park [near downtown Minneapolis],” Steller said. “I grew up driving by people every day who were different from me and who were expressing a need for help and support. It always broke my heart as a little kid because, although I wasn’t able to conceptualize homelessness necessarily, the idea of people being alone really got to me.
“Later on, I thought, ‘What if I drove around and offered free haircuts?’ I did it only for a few weeks before we opened [the salon], but it was really impactful. The things I gained from slowing down, from engaging with people, were really powerful.”
In those few weeks, Steller established a few ground rules: First, it was important not to ask homeless people to come to her, but to go wherever they are. (Usually, that means she drives around until she sees someone with a sign asking for help, inquires whether they’d like a haircut and sets up shop if the answer is “yes.”)
She needed to get used to the idea that some people do say “no.” And, as in the salon, she would use the time to make a connection with the person in her red chair. In fact, she came up with a couple of questions for homeless clients:
“What do you wish people knew about you?” And, “What would be helpful for you to receive?”
Often, the answer to that second question is kindness, she said. Or eye contact. Or respect.
Steller had to shelve the Red Chair Project while she was building her business, although she continued to help strangers through her Steller Kindness Project, an online site that collects stories of kindness in the hope that they’ll encourage more kindness.
But, a few months ago, Steller — who candidly shares that she lives with depression and a chronic illness, and has dealt with substance abuse challenges in the past — returned to the idea.
“I was feeling so much the heaviness of the world, and I was thinking, ‘When you feel helpless, help someone else,’ ” recalled Steller.
That impulse led to rebooting the Red Chair Project, which also distributes $14 bags, funded by her and by donations, that include hygiene products, food and water for folks, whether they want haircuts or not.
“I just thought, I need to actively seek out the good in the world. I need to take a step forward and put out there what I would like to see. We all get so suffocated by the pain that, sometimes, we don’t recognize that we have the ability to create changes on a micro-level,” said Steller.
“So, I said to one of my employees, who is a college student, ‘Want to drive around with me? We’ll bring the chair and see if we can be helpful.’ ”
Steller says she gets a lot from showing up for people in the community. Her clients have told her that they appreciate being seen and acknowledged as much as they enjoy the chat and the haircut.
“I want people to feel the connection that I have wanted. Our sadness might come from different places. Our stories might be different, but we can both relate to this idea of wanting to connect,” said Steller.
As with any bold undertaking, there have been naysayers: Those who accuse her of seeking publicity. Those who think she’s a “privileged white girl” trying to make herself feel better. Those who argue that haircuts don’t do enough for the homeless. Steller listens to them and shakes their hands. Naysayers, too, provide an opportunity to reach out and to learn to do better.
Said Steller, “There are people who are like, ‘Well, a haircut isn’t going to solve homelessness or hunger,’ and I’m like, ‘You’re right. It’s not. But what are you doing to help solve this?’ ”