Eric's Heroes: Meet the barbers who cut for free

Troy Yelland and Ronnel Getz at their Central Barber Shop. (Photo: KOMO News)

SEATTLE -- The birds are singing bright and early on the last Thursday of the month, and Ronnel Getz is outside cleaning the window of his pride and joy, the Central Barber shop. His tattooed arm goes back and forth, first the top, then the bottom. He's putting a shine on the place because this will be a big day indeed.

At 8 a.m., he flips the sign, and he and his partner, Troy Yelland, are open for business. Almost immediately the customers start to stream in, one after another.

Many they know by name. "What's up, Kaye" says Ronnel as a woman walks in.

They come pushing walkers. They come in wheelchairs. Some stroll in on their own.

All of them settle in to the back of the shop, past Cookie the dog with a patch over its eye, and they sit to wait their turn. Nobody seems to be in a hurry. There's nowhere they'd rather be.

Ronnel and Troy start cutting hair.

A guy named Mathew with a wild hair and a burly graying beard sits in Ronnel's chair.

"What can I do for you today?" says the man with the scissors.

"Transform me into a human being!" says Mathew.

And Ronnel starts whittling away.

There's a point where Mathew tilts his head back as Ronnel works on his beard. He closes his eyes, and there's a half-smile on his face like he's a million miles away.

He eventually opens his eyes and says, "For these guys to cut your hair, at least you can get on the bus looking decent."

He pauses to think for a moment, Ronnel still cutting away. "Because you know, we only get about $52 a month."

Cookie, the dog with a patch over its eye, looks up.

Troy is cutting away at Kaye's hair. She wants it short, and the shorter it gets, the more is brings out her roundish smiling face.

Kaye says, "Troy's been cutting my hair for eight months now."

The shorter the hair gets, the bigger her grin grows.

Ronnel doesn't look up from his work, but he politely answers a few of my questions. "They're people that could use a couple bucks," he says. "I was like that. I didn't grow up rich. I know what it's like to need, not just want."

Mathew's haircut is almost finished now.

"I feel like you need a haircut. It's hard to look good without a haircut. It's hard to feel good if you don't look good."

Mathew opens his eyes again. "That's true," he pipes in.

When Ronnel finishes he holds a mirror up to Mathew, who likes what he sees. "Oh yeah, look out! Senator Mathew, here we come!"

All of the people who show up here on the final Thursday or every month live a block away at the Cannon House. It's an assisted-living facility for low-income residents.

As he starts on his next customer Ronnel says, "My friend Ed lives in that building, and I've known him for a long time. Me and him have been in some rocky places..."

He doesn't elaborate, but he explains that several months ago the person who used to cut hair at Cannon House moved on for good, so he and Troy decided THEY would cut the residents hair --- for free.

Polly, who is waiting her turn says, "I have no money for a haircut." And she's not exaggerating.

So they come here every month. People like Roger, who wanted a buzz-cut. And Polly. And Mathew.

And Stacia, who gets her straight hair cut and says she feels like a movie star every time she comes here.

As she looks into the mirror she practically sings, "Oh, that's it! I'm in love! You're a saint!"

I say to Ronnel, "But this is costing you money!"

He considers that statement like he'd never thought about it before. "Hmmmm," he says, "Yeah, I guess so. I could be cutting someone's hair and making money right now, but we do that 29 other days a month. What's four hours, you know?"

I keep bugging him. "So why do you do it?"

He says, "Because I care about my community and I want them to care about me. That's how it works, you know?"

I look around at all the people in that little barber shop, so happy to be getting a free haircut. So thrilled at the results. So very thankful and cheerful.

Yeah. That's how it works.

At some point, watching the goings on in the Central Barber shop, you realize that Ronnel and Troy ARE getting paid. They're getting paid with smiles and hugs and gratitude from people who can afford little else.

And then it dawns on me, as Stacia says for the 13th time, "Thank you SO MUCH!", that on the last Thursday of every month, Ronnel and Troy are getting downright rich!

Central Barber is at 308 22nd Ave S., #102, in Seattle.

Editor's Note: "Eric's Heroes" is a weekly series airing every Wednesday on KOMO News in the 6 p.m. newscast. If you have a good story about a good person doing good things for the right reasons, share it with Eric by sending an email to

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