Susan Russell was about two seconds away from giving up when an act of kindness changed everything. In 2013, she was on her first day selling Real Change in front of Ken’s Market in Greenwood, feeling vulnerable and hopeless. She had been homeless for years, but had always tried her hardest not to look the part. But there, with her papers, she knew she was doing the right thing – but it didn’t feel right.
“I hid from that label,” she says. And selling Real Change, even though it was a good opportunity, was forcing her to confront it. “It was the hardest thing I’d ever done. I just wanted to run.”
But then, something happened. Ken Giles – the titular “Ken” of Ken’s Market – came out to talk to her. He told her that he was glad she was there, and that she was welcome.
“That was so amazing,” she explains. “Somebody cared.”
So she kept coming back. And back. And back. And before long, that stretch of sidewalk outside of Ken’s became her second home. By saying “good morning” and “have a nice day,” even in the face of the occasional sideways look, she has become a fixture – and a personal friend of Ken and his whole family.
“The community slowly embraced me. They brought me back.”
Russell’s road was a long and difficult one. As a young woman, she was on a path toward a great career. She was a union cement mason, working on the West Seattle Bridge and the Seahawks Exhibition Center. She helped build this city and she made a good living doing it.
Then, she was rear-ended and sustained life-threatening injuries. As a result, “I lost my trade,” she says.
The other driver didn’t have insurance and the bills quickly mounted. Unable to work, she lived on savings. When those ran out, she couch-surfed. When there were no more couches, she slept wherever she could. But she didn’t sleep much.
“Every time I fell asleep, something bad happened to me,” she says.
Eventually, she found her way to Nickelsville, where her story – and her voice – helped her become an advocate. If you’ve ever seen the residents of Nickelsville speak at an event, you’ve probably seen her. Trained to stand and deliver by the AFL-CIO, she is a natural.
Even when Russell didn’t have housing of her own, she was advocating for housing. She helped get millions earmarked for the construction of new public housing in Sandpoint and has been an essential voice.
“I advocate like crazy,” she says with a smile.
It took her seven years to get into transitional housing and 10 to get into a permanent place to live, thanks in large part to a “community that raised me.” In her place, she says, she’s never been happier.
“Every morning, I get to wake up in a beautiful room,” she says, “and look out my window and I think that this is what community does.”
Russell is now putting her skills and her artistic talent to work, landing big contracts with service providers and creating beautiful pieces to help spread her positive message. Susan’s activism project, called “Love Wins Love,” serves just that purpose.
“You’re not going to get anywhere with negative energy,” she explains. “People who are suffering need love to be able to love again.”
She creates “unity flags,” individual squares of fabric or other materials, all recycled, that she asks people to help paint and personalize. Then, she assembles them and uses them in different advocacy projects. She hung the unity flags at the Camp Second Chance entrance when it was at risk of being swept. One unity flag strand is now so long that it circles City Hall.
She also paints hearts using soy-based paints, and encourages people to trade them. That way, “we wear someone’s heart on our sleeve and someone wears our heart.”
She’s also working on a new housing project called EcoThrive, which is guided by a vision of providing “deeply affordable” housing that focuses on community.
She’s also still selling Real Change up at Ken’s where, she says, she’s become a voice for homeless folks among neighbors.
“They come ask me about things, they talk to me about things,” she says. “A lot of people want to get involved. And they don’t realize that supporting a vendor is how.”
Susan Russell will be given the Change Agent award at our annual breakfast on Sept. 18 at the Washington State Convention Center.
Check out the full Sept. 12 - Sept. 18 issue.
Real Change is a non-profit organization advocating for economic, social and racial justice. Since 1994 our award-winning weekly newspaper has provided an immediate employment opportunity for people who are homeless and low income. Learn more about Real Change.