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Facing Homelessness

November 27, 2014

The story of Rex Hohlbein, an architect turned homeless advocate, who is on a mission to change public perception of the homeless.

Rex Hohlbein talks about his transition from architect to homeless advocate.

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.

Chiaka showcases the art piece he first brought Rex as a thank you gift for reaching out to him.

“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.

Rex Hohlbein with a collage of photographs he took depicting the face of homelessness.

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.

Seattle Artist Sara Snedeker stands by the portrait she created of Just Say Hello, the motto of Homeless in Seattle.

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


Made possible in part by

'Facing Homelessness' received the 2015 NW Emmy Awards in the categories of Public/Current/Community Affair - Feature/Segment and Writer (Enrique Cerna)

Enrique Cerna, Producer
Greg Davis, Photographer/Editor

Enrique Cerna

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

There are 17 comments

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but would someone please proofread the story and make the necessary corrections?

What needs to be corrected?

7th paragraph: "tapped him on the 'show'" should be "shoulder"

This was a great story. I love your new TV show!

This is a great story. Fate brought Rex in contact with Chiaka. The relationship developed into a moment of kindness, love and responsibility into action. Now an NGO for a wider group of people to awake and recognize those on the streets without shelter and to recognize them as human beings. All the very best.

It's wonderful to see someone being proactive like this. Too many people and too many in our government just don't care about the plight of the poor or ill.

This beautiful story reminds me so much of the documentary "Cats of Mirikitani." Rex has taken the process further, looking into each face and extending hospitality and recognition. This is how lives get put back together. The genesis of community. Thank you for bringing this good work into the light.

Thank you, Rex Hohlbein, for recognizing the humanity in the homeless people who changed your life, for what you are doing to help them make the most of their lives, and for all you are doing to help others understand that homeless people can positively affect our lives. Thirty years ago, I volunteered to help the "street people" of Memphis who were coming to our church for help. I had no idea that they would enrich my life beyond measure, bringing it focus and direction and meaning or that, because if them, I would live out my dreams. God bless them and you.

Just Say Hello - so simple, so humanizing, so humbling. Thank you for tapping me on the shoulder.

I'd like to know why providing for the long-term needs of the homeless is considered "enabling," while providing the same for those with money is not? Is it perhaps because, in spite of Hohlbein's disclaimer above that "This kind of mythical thought that they chose or somehow are living this life by their own decision is completely false," there's still a double standard, and the homeless are still thought of as lazy, shiftless, malingerers who take no initiative and do nothing for themselves or for society—or worse yet, parasites or criminals siphoning off the public good?

You cherry picked. His job here is to extend a hand and treat them as they are...human. However he widely acknowledged that he is in no position to handle each case as everyone's circumstances are different. In some cases, it might be enabling, especially if they cannot or don't want to choose to be helped based on their specific issue.

He was very clear that his mission is to help put a human face on homelessness. He can't fix it all nor has the resources to if you even followed him at all you would see that he does his best to.connect the homeless to resources that can help.

The average person is blind or indifferent to the homeless. By sharing their stories and providing limited assistance in a time when they are in crisis, helps educate the people that would otherwise keep.on.walking down the street.

Wasn't he saying to enable a longer term solution? He wasn't talking condescendingly about enablement at all.

You have created a wonderful thing Rex. Whenever you involve a sense of community and care there is dignity for those living there. What you are doing is truly a blessing for all involved thank you.

I understand some of the concerns because in the past some of the people that have asked for help have been people with long long criminal backgrounds, violent offenders, sexual predators, this I know to be true because our county makes these offenders pictures public as well as the names and types of convictions. Knowing that Rex means well, and is willing to help anyone without even checking into the backgrounds to find out if they are wanted for not registering...We wonder. We wondered before he started his Just Say Hello thing. Now taking into consideration that we are ALL able to chose just how much effort we want to put into talking to strangers,,as a woman, I am not interested in saying hello to every dude that is leaning or loitering or wandering or what ever. Because sometimes just saying hello sends a message that we are "interested" ..and I am not interested in talking to men that I am not familiar with. It is safer for me to give to local groups that require background checks before handing out someone else's money. yes, the offender may need help, but I am not interested in helping those whom do not want to help themselves. But so many people are willing to help anyone that comes by, that THIS is an example of enabling. Enabling offenders that do not take responsibility and change the bad choices that they make.

Nobody is being asked to do more than they can or care to. Give without being attached to the outcome....or give nothing.

Just wanted to say thanks to Rex for bringing more awareness to the suffering addicts and people with mental illness. Most homeless people suffer from one or both afflictions. It is true that some are criminals but based on my own personal experience and empirical evidence I believe that all people can change and if they are willing to receive help then it should be afforded to them.

Great story and a really inspiring. Thanks for the profile on Hohlbein.

Does anyone know if Chiaka is still selling his artwork? His paintings are incredible, and I'd love to purchase one. Such a gifted artist!

While trying to see if Chiaka's art is available online, I came across the website I have no affiliation with the company, but found it interesting and thought this audience might appreciate learning about it. From their website: "ArtLifting is a low-profit limited liability company ("L3C"). The scalable art marketplace provides homeless and disabled individuals the opportunity to earn their own income. Artists earn 55% of the proceeds from each sale. ArtLifting sells originals, prints, and products so artists can make unending amounts of money from each piece."