Susan Russell has been selling the street newspaper Real Change for seven years in front of Ken’s Market in Phinney Ridge. 

She knows the neighborhood. She’s “watched everyone’s children grow,” and they’ve watched her go from homeless and selling the paper in order to survive to housed and stable for the last three years.

But she kept selling papers at Ken’s Market.

“Sometimes I would just go there because I’m lonely,” Russell said. “Even if I didn’t sell the paper, I got so many hugs and so many beautiful conversations within the network of the community that would help bring me back to life.”

With the spread of coronavirus, half of Russell’s sales have disappeared — but that’s not the worst part.

“With the virus — my god, I’m just so in need of hugs,” Russell said. “They’re like, disappearing.”

Washington state is social distancing, and although in the words of Sara Rankin, a law professor who runs Seattle University’s Homeless Rights Advocacy Project, “we’ve always been good at social distancing from homeless people,” now, people without homes are even more isolated.


Many volunteers have been sent home from shelters. Libraries are closed. Meal programs and church kitchens are closing the halls where homeless and poor people socialize after meals and are instead handing out to-go food.

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Seattle Foundation and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

In Russell’s other job, serving meals with the Phinney Neighborhood Association, the social nature of eating is almost gone.

At Georgetown’s tiny house village for homeless people in transition, residents are getting “cabin fever,” and many have been laid off from their jobs, according to site coordinator Andrew Constantino.

At the Bridge Care Center in Ballard, homeless clients came in Tuesday to find a laptop where their peer support counselor, Jennifer Adams, would normally be. Adams — who is immuno-compromised — met with her clients via a video conference call Tuesday, helping them navigate the court system, get on waitlists for housing, find food and clothes, and a myriad other things.

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And while crowded shelters have already been able to coordinate with Seattle and King County to open up new spaces at Boeing Field and Seattle Center, some shelters have been forced to decrease capacity: The emergency men’s shelter at Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission (UGM) has had to decrease the number of people it allows inside in order to accommodate social distancing rules. 

By Tuesday, UGM was forced to turn away 92 of the 177 it can usually accommodate every night, said John Walling, UGM guest services administrator.


“We are making more spaces between cots; we’re cutting down cots,” Walling said. They’ve also limited hours and changed the shelter’s communal meals to takeout.

On Tuesday morning, as Seattle UGM staffers prepped ham and cheese sandwiches for sack lunches on the go, others hosed down the sidewalk outside the men’s shelter.

Inside a day room that typically holds 40 people, only a handful of guests were reading, playing guitar or listening to music. 

Outside, UGM has also stopped its outreach program in order to focus on the population inside its shelters. Richard McAdams, who coordinates the outreach program, still is able to monitor outreach calls from a hotline, but he isn’t regularly going out with his team to distribute resources and bring people inside.

“For right now, we’re protecting our staff and our interns and the guests that we serve,” McAdams said.

Several floors up from the sidewalk, residents of UGM’s LINK program had another difficult decision to make. LINK, which provides transitional shelter to men in recovery while they’re pursuing employment, had just informed the 33 participants in the program that the shelter was going into lockdown — meaning, they had to choose whether to stay and stop going to work, or leave. 


“About 30 of the 33 guys had jobs, so it’s going to be tough decision for a lot of them,” said Joey De Luca, case manager.

‘The part we’re not getting now is the interaction’

On Tuesday afternoon, Russell burst out of the back doors of St. John’s Lutheran Church with an announcement for the few people who’d gathered there early.

“I just want you guys to know everything’s changed,” Russell said. Before, diners would come into the social hall of St. John’s, get served soup-kitchen style at a buffet, and sit around and talk. Sometimes someone would play the piano. Others would just sit.

“We gotta find ways to stay warm,” said Sonny Phan, 54, one of the people waiting in line. He’d been walking around for hours doing just that. A food prep worker who stays in a shelter in this church at night, he would normally go to a Starbucks to charge his phone and stay warm.

But you can’t sit down in a Starbucks anymore.

“We have a picnic table here,” Russell said to Phan and the others, “(but) if you have a car, you might want to take it to your car.”

One by one — but no more than 10 at a time — diners file through the hall, sanitize their hands, take a to-go box, use the bathroom if they need to, and leave. Every place Phan goes, he says, it’s like this.

“The part we’re not getting now is the interaction,” said Krissie Dillin, program director for Phinney Neighborhood Association. “We have to tell them they’re still important — still seen.”

Phan took some food and went to hang out at the picnic table. He didn’t sit down but hung against the wall, waiting for some friends who said they’d meet him there.

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