Homelessness in Seattle can feel like an overwhelming problem. We want to help, but don’t know where to start. Rex Hohlbein, a Seattle architect, has a simple idea: look a homeless person in the eye and say hello.
Just say hello.
A simple hello changed Rex’s life forever. It was 2010. He’d grown accustomed to biking past dozens of homeless people each day along the Burke Gilman Trail as he rode to work. One day, he came across two shopping carts filled with art in front of his Fremont office. He gently nudged the guy sleeping next to them and said, “When you get up, and if you want, you are welcome to come to my office in the gray house for a cup of tea.” An hour later, the man arrived and introduced himself. Chiaka was an artist who’d been living on the streets for the last ten years, struggling to sell his art and to survive. He suffered from depression. Rex created a Chiaka Facebook page to help him sell some paintings, which it did. More importantly, it sparked an outpouring of compassion. Remarkably, it also reconnected Chiaka with his daughters who lived in Pittsburgh. They bought him a plane ticket to return home.
The friendship with Chiaka set Rex on a mission to humanize the people living on Seattle’s streets. He offered his Fremont office up as a drop-in center. He made a point of saying hello to the homeless. Soon, they had names, familiar faces, and each had their own story. Rex began posting those stories with photographs on a Facing Homelessness Facebook site, hoping they might dispel some of the negative stereotypes surrounding those suffering from homelessness. The posts set off a chain reaction of empathy and community compassion. “Every single person that is outside has a profound reason for being there,” Rex says. “And in our busy, busy lives, we have rushed past those profound reasons. This is what I would like for all of us to know. No one chooses to be homeless. No one. Every single person that is outside has a profound reason for being there.”
In 2013, Rex started a nonprofit organization called Facing Homelessness. Their mission: To invite all of us to come closer, and to contribute our unique passions and skills toward the effort of ending homelessness. The projects designed by Facing Homelessness are all geared towards creating simple, easy steps for people to get involved. “When you come closer you tap into your creative compassion,” Rex says. “And that is actually the strength of getting community involved. It’s not about money. It’s about the infinite number of options that become available when people lower their barriers.”
The Block Project, the latest Facing Homelessness initiative, founded by Rex and his daughter Denn LaFreniere at BLOCK Architects, is a visionary effort to end homelessness by placing small, completely off-grid homes throughout the city. Rather than cluster them in empty city lots, these go in people’s backyards. The goal is to place one on every block of the city—enough to end homelessness in Seattle. The homes wouldn’t be for those suffering from severe mental illness or violent offenders, but those are the minority of Seattle’s homeless. “The bulk of people who are outside are suffering from various levels of trauma, but are perfectly capable of living in communities,” Rex says. “In fact, they will heal faster and integrate faster if they are living in communities.”
Facing Homelessness has programs for anyone wishing to share their time and kindness. Rex says, “I would like for us all to know and to keep in our hearts that if we’re going to end the suffering of homelessness, we’re all going to have to slow down and get involved in some way.”