Randy Miller was walking down the sidewalk in Seattle’s Sodo neighborhood on the warmest day of the year so far, cars whizzing by, looking for someone in need of a haircut.
He spotted a man across the street standing near an Arco gas station like he had nowhere to go.
When there was a break in the traffic, Miller ran across the road to talk to him with a red camping chair swung across his shoulder, a small backpack with hair clippers bouncing on his back.
“You want a free haircut and shave?” he asked the man.
They settled on the latter.
And there, next to an Arco station against a white wall with graffiti and shade from a nearby tree, Randy Miller’s free, homeless barbershop was in business.
Miller’s hair-cutting work, which goes by the name BetheBlessing206, doesn’t cost anything, because his homeless clientele don’t have much, if any, money. Yet he treats it like a professional operation.
“You get more than a haircut with me,” Miller said.
When you sit in Miller’s barber chair, he gets down on your level to listen.
He smiles, asks questions. He can hold court with passersby, while keeping the person in his chair the main focus. He’s gentle with his work, carefully tipping people’s heads forward or back as needed. He carries wet wipes to help clean someone’s hair if they haven’t been able to get a shower in a while.
He talks about the Seahawks. The weather. Asks people where they’re from. Shares some of his own story.
His barber chair has been upgraded since Miller started his business — from a milk crate to the folding chair he carries around. He used a trash bag that he cut a hole in for a barber’s cape starting out. Now he’s got a real one with a picture of Kobe Bryant on the front.
He operates on any open sidewalk, sometimes inside homeless day centers or shelters. He’s been known to cut hair in bus stops or in parking lots.
It’s hard to come by a good haircut when you’re homeless, client Joshua Cage explained.
“I trust him more than I trust a shop,” Cage said.
Miller knows this problem well. He created BetheBlessing206 as a way to turn his frustration with the homelessness system into something useful. And he’s hoping it can lead to better things.
He’s started an Amazon Wishlist to help acquire more equipment. He’s on Twitter and Instagram. And people all over, from Alaska to Germany to England, have sent him donations. Sometimes they arrive with little notes of encouragement.
“We’re rooting for you,” one person wrote.
“There are good people in the world,” Miller said. It’s easy to forget that when you’re homeless.
Nowadays, when he’s not working day labor to earn some money, he’s out on Seattle’s streets cutting hair and trimming beards, offering a little love and attention to people who don’t have much.
It’s something he’d also like to have.
“Be a blessing”
More than two years ago, before Miller started BetheBlessing206, he was standing in front of a bathroom mirror cutting his hair with clippers surrounded by other homeless men. He was at a day center in Seattle that helps poor people find work, when someone asked, “Hey man, can I use your clippers?”
“I told him, ‘No,’ because no,” Miller said. You have to look out for yourself when you’re homeless, and clippers are hard to come by.
But then he thought about it.
A month earlier, he’d been feeling really frustrated with the system. Frustrated that the government and organizations weren’t helping him get out of homelessness. He started praying in his shelter bunk, asking God, “How can I not be homeless any more?”
“How come I can’t get ahead?”
And God answered, Miller said.
“If I want a blessing from him, I have to be a blessing to other people,” Miller heard.
At the day center, he walked back up to the man who’d asked for his clippers in the bathroom and told him he’d do one better. He’d cut his hair for him.
“I think love and relationship is what’s missing from homelessness,” Miller said. “I think people are homeless for way too long.”
Miller is still homeless himself. He’s currently living in a shelter and he’s making it work. He’s lived in shelter or outside on and off for around 20 years.
Miller’s parents divorced when he was young. In his childhood, he moved around a lot as an Army brat. He was raised mainly by a single mom who did the best she could, Miller said.
But the things he’s earned in his life — like getting his GED or restaurant jobs or an old apartment — he’s says he figured out by himself.
Setting the stage
In early April, Miller was standing on a corner in downtown Seattle with the same red camping chair swung across his shoulder when Cage bumped into him.
“You ready?” Miller asked.
“Let’s do it,” Cage told him.
The pair started walking south, past buses rolling by on Third Avenue, past tourists, past people lying on the street.
A few blocks later, Miller found what he was looking for — a wide sidewalk outside a closed coffee shop.
“You got to be considerate,” he said.
He’s had the cops called on him for cutting hair once before, so he’s careful to find places where he can feel out of the way.
Miller set up while Cage picked out his hair using an empty storefront’s glass window as a mirror. Funky tunes boomed from a round speaker, helping to set the mood.
People walked by. Some stopped to watch.
“Hey bro, free haircuts if you want to be next,” Miller offered to a passerby.
Cage lives in a tiny house village now, but the 28-year-old used to survive outside. He met Miller after spending what little money he had on a fade from a local chain.
“They jacked me up,” he said. “It was low and short, and it was awkward. I looked like the moon.”
Miller has cut his hair a few times now. When it’s getting long, Cage said, he’ll wear a hat and look for Miller walking around Pioneer Square and downtown Seattle.
Miller doesn’t ask his clients straight-out if they’re homeless. If you’re on the street and you need a cut, he’ll do it. He doesn’t ask for money, but if someone wants to give him a few bucks, he’ll take it.
He’s had people run to a nearby 7-Eleven to buy him a piece of pizza to thank him or offer to get him food using their SNAP benefits. He mainly cuts men’s hair, but he’s also done women’s.
He’s had homeless people come up to him and ask for a haircut if they have a job interview. He recently cut a guy’s hair because he wanted to look nice to go see his mom.
“How you look affects how you live,” Miller said. Housed people treat you differently if you look a little put together.
While homeless, Miller has largely been able to secure food or shelter when he needs it.
But coming by a good haircut? That’s way harder to find.
Seeing a future
On the day Miller gave Cage a fade, he said the trick to that style was “paying attention.”
That could apply to any aspect of his BetheBlessing206 work.
He’s built his work on three main principles, he says: first, being accountable. If he cuts hair in a certain part of town, he’ll return to see old clients.
Second, building personal relationships.
And third, creating an experience.
“Since I’m homeless, one of our complaints, I guess, is we want to be treated like regular people.”
Miller has a lot of goals when it comes to his hair-cutting work and serving friends and strangers in Seattle’s homeless community. He’d like to find a way to go to barber school and after that he wants to figure out how to help more people, maybe by setting up a mobile hair-cutting clinic in a van.
He uses the bus and light rail to get places, but with a vehicle he could cover much more ground.
His goal isn’t to own a four-bedroom house, he said. And he doesn’t want a brick-and-mortar shop, serving people who already have a home.
He wants to find ways to give back to people who are homeless, people like him, people who feel forgotten.
“My main verse for this out of the Bible is ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ ” Miller said.
He thinks that’s the part that shocks people the most when they see him on the street.
Not that he’s a decent, self-taught barber, but that he’s serving someone else.