The story of Rex Hohlbein, an architect turned homeless advocate, who is on a mission to change public perception of the homeless.
In his 30 years as a Seattle architect, Rex Hohlbein has designed million dollar homes and won numerous awards for his architectural work.
“I’ve had an absolutely blessed career” said Hohlbein.
While has his passion and skill remain strong, it is his life that has taken on a new path into the world of the homeless.
“Who are these people?” asks Hohlbein, “The answer to that is they are everybody, they are us.”
Through personal experience and social media, Hohlbein is bringing awareness to the human side of the homeless, who they are and how they got there. In the process, the public gets a chance to reach out too.
“This is not an issue of homelessness it’s about a person, one human being that is suffering. And what can we do for that one human being in service.”
Hohlbein’s journey began on an early morning about four years ago as he biked to his Fremont office. When he arrived, he saw a man sleeping on a cart with a blanket over his head. Hohlbein got off his bike, tapped him on the shoulder and invited him into his office for a cup of tea.
About an hour later, he showed up. He said his name was Chiaka. After tea, he asked Hohlbein if he could read him parts of a children’s book he was writing.
“He reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out a big wad of about 25 pages of 8x10 small print and I was thinking oh my god I am going to be here for an hour a half listening to this” said Hohlbein.
Instead of reading the story, Chiaka performs the story with singing and dancing. Hohlbein is taken aback by his talent. He learns that Chiaka is an artists and the cart he sleeps on carries his art supplies. Hohlbein tells Chiaka that he has a shed where he stores his architecture materials and if he doesn’t mind organizing, he can store his art supplies there. And then Hohlbein tells Chiaka he can sleep there too. “It was a big thing to say, because hearing myself say it I instantly realized I was taking on something maybe bigger than I understood.”
The next morning Chiaka came to Hohlbein’s office and asked him to come outside. “He had made about 7 foot tall by 4 foot wide painting of this lioness goddess woman that was gorgeous” said Hohlbein. “This man was really a genius artist.”
Chiaka has been selling his art work for very little money for food and art supplies. Hohlbein decided to create a Facebook page featuring his work and immediately people wanted to know how they could buy the art.
“A woman in Bellevue paid $350 and he then he got two or three commissions and things were really just moving along” said Hohlbein.
But then one morning as Hohlbein was checking the Facebook page, he came upon a stunning comment from a young woman in Pittsburgh, “OMG, I think I just found our father.” Then came another comment, “Chiaka, we love you please come home get in touch with us.” It was Chiaka’s daughter, mother and sister.
Chiaka told Hohlbein that he left his family ten years ago. “He explained to me that he left because of his mental illnesses, bipolar, anger management and depression worried him about his daughters. And he couldn’t cope with it all so he left” said Hohlbein.
The next day, Hohlbein drove Chiaka to the airport so he could reunite with his family. It was an emotional goodbye. The homeless artist left an indelible influence on his friend, the architect. “It was on the way home from SeaTac crying in the car, that I decided I would start another Facebook site called Homeless in Seattle” said Hohlbein, “And I would do that because I realized in that moment what Chiaka had done for me, he had completely exploded and torn apart the negative stereotype against homelessness.”
Hohlbein set out to challenge what we think, know, feel and fear about the homeless. “There is no sense of one category that fits homelessness but also that each person that I’ve met that is actually living on the street and struggling with homelessness is there for a reason” said Hohlbein, “This kind of mythical thought that they chose or somehow are living this life by their own decision is completely false.”
Through the Homeless in Seattle site, Hohlbein posted black and white photographs of the homeless with descriptions about their background, their challenges, hopes and needs. Many of those stories came from conversations at his Fremont office. Word spread quickly that it was a place where the homeless could drop in, get some coffee or tea, use the bathroom, hang out and talk.
As Hohlbein posted photos and stories on the homeless in Seattle site, he quickly found out, as he did with Chiaka, about the power and reach of social media. “A community formed around the stories and the posts almost immediately” said Hohlebin, “If I said this is so and so and tell a little bit about them and by the way they’re sleeping out under a tree, there would be a person a few hours later that would say oh my gosh, can I bring a sleeping bag for him.”
People of all ages and backgrounds wanted to help out by providing basic needs. The office became a drop off site for food, clothes and other supplies. As the response grew so did the Homeless in Seattle page to more than 13 thousand followers in 45 countries. “We are more crisis orientated were not interested in providing something that is ongoing in an enabling manner” said Hohlbein.
The site made it easy for people to directly respond, to see an immediate impact and to feel they were making a difference in someone’s life. “Honestly it’s what fueled my desire to keep doing this” said Hohlbein. And along the way three words, Just Say Hello, became prominent on the Homeless in Seattle page, as Hohlbein encouraged people to acknowledge the homeless when they see them on the street.
Much has changed for Rex Hohlbein in the four years since he met Chiaka, the homeless artist. He realized that as much as he loves being an architect, his heart is with the homeless. So he has put his profession on the back burner, opened an office in the University District and founded a non-profit called, Facing Homelessness , to expand his reach and message.
“One of the first things I told my wife when I started this was I have to be careful to try to think I’m going to fix anything. You start doing this for someone suffering on the street, whatever that part is, small or big and you quickly find out and, I know we all know this, but it’s so true that you’re the one being enriched by the moment. Its crazy physics, it’s something very beautiful.”
Facebook Page: Homeless in Seattle
The son of Mexican immigrants, Enrique Cerna was born and raised in the Yakima Valley. Enrique joined KCTS 9 in January, 1995. He has anchored current affairs programs, moderated statewide political debates, produced and reported stories for national PBS programs in addition to local documentaries on social and juvenile justice, the environment and Latinos in Washington State.
Enrique has earned nine Northwest Emmy Awards and numerous other honors. In June, 2013, he was inducted into the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Northwest Chapter’s Silver Circle for his work as a television professional.More stories by Enrique Cerna