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From Architect to Advocate, a Seattle Man Wants to Change Your Mind About Homelessness

(photo courtesy of Rex Hohlbein)

Seattle native Rex Hohlbein has run his own architecture firm for the past 27 years. For the past five, his office has been down on the Fremont canal in Seattle, a place where a lot of homeless people hang out.

“I would have my lunch down there and get to know people,” Rex told me. “That getting to know somebody, it’s not too difficult to say, ‘Do you want to use the bathroom? Do you want a cup of coffee? Do you want to come in? It’s raining like hell.'”

One day…

“I came across these two carts parked just off the Burke-Gilman [Trail] in front of my office. They were filled with art: canvases and paints and brushes. Then I noticed that there was a man sleeping in the bottom of it. So I tapped him on the shoulder and I said, ‘Hey, when you get up, I work right here in this gray house. You can use the bathroom.’ About an hour later this man, his name is Chaka, came in and we had a cup of coffee. About five minutes into it he says, ‘Do you want to hear a children’s book story that I’m writing?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ He started in and at one point he’s standing up and dancing and singing parts of it. It’s just such a beautiful story that about three quarters through I teared up. I mean, it really moved me. When he finished I said, ‘I don’t know how, but I need to help you publish this.'”

Chaka was frustrated that he couldn’t make more than a few bucks off of his amazing art, so Rex started a Facebook page for Chaka’s art and four months later he got, “A comment from a woman in Pittsburgh, who is 17 years old, that said, ‘Oh my God, I think I’ve just found our father.’ Then the next comment is from her sister saying, ‘Oh my God, it is our dad!’ I read all this to him and when I turn around he’s just streaming tears and he says, ‘I have to go home.'”

Chaka’s family bought him a plane ticket and Rex drove him to the airport.

“I had this really emotional goodbye to somebody that was a complete stranger who had become this great friend. On the way home, I’m crying in the car, and I’m realizing that what Chaka had done for me is he blew apart the negative stereotype against homelessness. He had shown me that here was this very compassionate man, very dedicated to his art. In that moment, I decided to start another Facebook site and just call it Homeless In Seattle with the sole intent of trying to reverse the negative stereotype against the homeless. And just show beautiful pictures and tell beautiful stories.”

This changed Rex’s life forever. The Facebook page now has over 9,000 followers and Rex became dedicated to changing people’s minds about homeless culture.

“Once I started making this transition into getting to know people that are homeless, it became problematic for my work. I really intend everyday to come in and do architecture. Then the door opens and someone walks in and they have some, not always but a lot of times, crisis and as word spread that became more and more of a common occurrence all day long, actually.”

So Rex decided to turn away from architecture and focus on his pending non-profit, Facing Homelessness.

“I’ve had 27 years of working with people that have quite a bit of money and making homes for them, something I love. But this has actually stolen my passion for what I want to do in life.”

It’s a completely grassroots effort that involves volunteers as opposed to employees.

“If you just hire people to do it, the general public isn’t actually learning that lesson. Isn’t understanding what the issue is about. It changes instantly when somebody comes here and has this beautiful conversation with the person they’re donating the tent or sleeping bag to.”

Rex offers one thing that everyone can do.

“Just say hello. You don’t need to give money if you don’t want. You don’t need to even stop. But you do need to make eye contact or say hello or just smile. Just something that says I see you, I see your pain. I acknowledge you. You’re another human being.”

Because being ignored daily is something every homeless person experiences. Rex tells a story about a homeless friend named Darwin who he invited into his office, to hang out, one particularly rainy day.

“He stayed until about three o’clock and when he stood up he said, ‘Hey Rex, I just wanted to thank you for letting me be inside today.’ He said, ‘It’s not because it’s raining, it’s actually because today I got to be a part of something normal. You had a client come in and you guys talked design together. And the phone rang and I got to hear these normal conversations. The UPS guy came and gave you a package. He said, ‘Have a nice day,’ and it seemed like he meant it. Then what Darwin explained to me, which really affected me, is when you are homeless living on the street, you live behind a Plexiglas divider. You are separated out and the only other people you can talk to are other people who are living this non-normal life behind the Plexiglas divider.”

Click here to volunteer with Facing Homelessness, which involves using your own talents and doing whatever speaks to you to make a difference.

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