Arizona cosmetology student Juan Carlos Montes de Oca began giving free haircuts to the homeless to honor the memory of his mother, who died of cancer. His volunteerism prompted an investigation by the Arizona State Board of Cosmetology, which he says threatened to prevent him from obtaining a license as punishment.
But Montes de Oca received a possible reprieve Wednesday, when Arizona Governor Doug Ducey wrote a letter slamming the cosmetology board and demanding they back off.
“The fact that one of our own citizens is volunteering his time and talents in an effort to help those who need it, is exactly the kind of citizenship we should be encouraging and celebrating,” Ducey wrote. “But instead Mr. Montes de Oca finds the heavy hand of government working against him.”
The cosmetology board’s investigation centers around a state law that prohibits unlicensed haircuts, mandating that trims can occur only at salons, nursing homes, or the house of a disabled or sick person. Though Montes de Oca has taken cosmetology classes, he does not yet have his license, and he gave haircuts to the homeless in a public park.
The cosmetology board did not respond to Heat Street’s inquiries about whether, after receiving the governor’s letter, it will end its investigation into Montes de Oca. A spokesman for the governor noted that while the board is independent, the governor can fire its members.
“We’ll see what happens next,” the governor’s spokesman said, adding that the governor will urge legislative reform after Montes de Oca’s woes, too.
The governor’s intervention nearly brought Montes de Oca to tears on Wednesday afternoon.
“Our community all deserves to live beautifully, and help people feel beautiful is my mission,” he said.
Montes de Oca said he first got the idea to volunteer when he saw a Youtube video of Mark Bustos, a New York City hairstylist who provides haircuts for the homeless. It resonated with Montes de Oca , who has also been down on his luck.
His mother died, the beauty school he was attending shuttered, and he’s struggled to afford enrolling in a new one, launching a GoFundMe to help cover the cost of tuition.
But “one thing I didn’t lose is my faith and my hope,” Montes de Oca said, adding that offering haircuts would provide hope for others and serve as an homage to his mother. “I saw the video, and I said I’m going to the park tomorrow. I got up, I got my stuff, and I started doing this.”
After giving his first haircuts to the homeless, Montes de Oca said he was struck by how empowering this simple service could be for people in need. He took to social media, enlisting other stylist friends to “grab their shears and go out and make a difference,” offering free haircuts to homeless people and low-income job-seekers.
He estimates that since he began, he’s given about 100 free haircuts. But now, he says, thanks to the cosmetology board, his dream is in peril.
“I’m getting my license taken away because of it,” Montes de Oca said. “I’m not going to be able to become a barber or a cosmetologist because of it, because I violated a law that I didn’t even know existed. … It’s not hurting anybody. If anything, you should see the world we’re living in.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.