Richard Downey covers an ironing board with a white bath towel and disperses washcloths, hairspray, gel, and pomade. He tunes his radio to Oldies 103.3.

The washers and driers are humming in the laundry room of the Barbara McInnis House, a rehabilitation center where homeless men and women have lined up for a once-a-month chance to get a haircut at the makeshift barbershop Downey runs.

It's not much of a salon, just a few chairs arranged down the room's perimeter, a shaver resting on a wet paper towel along the rim of a deep sink.

Atop a running washing machine, a stack of magazines sits in a neat pile beside a jar of combs soaking in a clear blue disinfectant.

But for those who come, it is an opportunity to socialize and to feel better about the way they look.

Patients at McInnis House, in Jamaica Plain, are not sick enough for a hospital but are unprepared to reenter shelters or return to the streets. As they heal, Downey, who is training to be a nurse, says he uses the salon to promote health and give people a chance to feel "cleaned up and dignified."

"Yeah, we got it going on in here, barber and everything," says Tony Payne, 43, who was recovering from a biopsy of tissue from his nose.

The salon is open one day a month for four hours, and usually there are more people waiting than Downey can handle. So Downey, who has run the makeshift barbershop since April, follows the sign-up list, where the 12 spots are often reserved days in advance.

But he usually stays well past closing to attend to everyone who has scribbled his or her name in the margins or waited patiently for an open slot.

When his nursing studies at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences required Downey to do eight hours of volunteer work, he turned to the Pine Street Inn, where he had worked intermittently for 20 years.

He was referred to McInnis House, where he mentioned his experience cutting hair to a volunteer coordinator, who suggested the salon.

Downey long ago fulfilled his requirement, but he continues to run the salon because it is so popular, and he enjoys helping people feel like they used to look.

"There are so many things that you lose when you're homeless," says Downey, 40. "One is a sense of who you are. And certainly your outward appearance is something that signals to someone whether you're who you were, or if you're different."

Payne had not seen Downey since he attended a job placement program at the Pine Street Inn eight years ago.

"I never thought he'd be here," Payne says.

Downey jokes that Payne had a gray spot on his head now. Payne spoke admiringly about Downey's ability to identify clothing brands. Rising rents made it difficult for Payne to pay bills on a meager salary driving trucks for a meat company. He later injured his hip and knee, further putting pressure on his finances. Payne moved in with his aunt, but after she died, he says he moved into a shelter.

Payne was waiting to learn whether his tissue sample was cancerous. Downey says it was difficult to see "Tony, who seems to make people feel safe, in a very vulnerable situation." But Payne was optimistic.

"Getting the haircut makes me feel better, just pushes me to go the right way," he said.

For each client, Downey douses a washcloth in hot water before massaging the person's head. He spends at least 15 minutes shaping hairdos and trimming beards and eyebrows. Some customers check out their new look in the reflection of a paper towel dispenser.

"Who is that junior over there?" a woman says, addressing Matthew James, whose head was freshly shaved.

"Yeah, I look like a new guy," James replies.

Anthony Woodley, 38, grabbed a broom to collect loose hair.

"I'm working for my haircut, more than I can say for anyone else in this room," teases Woodley.

"Can you bring me that magazine over there?" one man asks.

"What do you think this is, Supercuts?" Woodley says playfully.

The light-heartedness continued throughout the afternoon.

"There's nothing different here than what's going on Newbury Street, except the bill is different," Downey says afterwards. "The same people, a different address. The same problems, except on a different level."

As the day ends, fewer people visits. Some latecomers ask Downey for a quick trim but he suggest they return next month.

Donald Kelleher quietly waits his turn. The brim of his tattered cap rests low on his face. He periodically covers his mouth to release a deep cough.

Downey summons Kelleher to the chair, and Kelleher instructs him to "get every bit of that beard right down to the nothing."

Kelleher, 71, says he never kept a beard until his shaver was stolen from his room at McInnis House two months ago.

Gray whiskers cover his cheeks in uneven patches resembling his stringy hair.

He strips off five layers of outer clothing, which he says he wears because he likes to watch his belongings.

Kelleher says he quit school in the sixth grade to get a job at a shoe store. Kelleher's fondest memories are of working as a carpet layer in President John F. Kennedy's home and at Gillette in South Boston.

"I was the best carpet layer in the world at one time, and I'm not bragging, it's true," he says.

Kelleher prefers not to talk about more recent days.

"Once yesterday went by, it's out of my mind, literally," he says.

Downey soaks Kelleher's hair with a hot towel and shave around his ears.

They sing "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer" as it plays on the radio.

A commercial break interrupts the sing-along and Kelleher's disposition changes. He slumps in his chair and scans the floor. Clumps of sopping hair dot the floor.

"It's so funny that at the end of the day, it's always that guy," Downey says.

"Everyone else has been here," his voice trails off. "But at the end of the day, these old angels come in."