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TEDxSeattle

Facing Homelessness | Rex Hohlbein

In this stirring and eye-opening talk, Rex Hohlbein shows how we can take our own small but meaningful steps to end homelessness and respond to inequalities in our midst.

Full talk transcript

In America, one in 45 children experience homelessness.  This is Athena and Adam, along with their brother Aidan and their parents, Courtney and Wayne.  They are homeless, living in local parks, cheap motels along Aurora Avenue, and tent city communities. This is Robert and Christina, living in their car.  In this photograph Christina is pregnant.  These are just two examples of homelessness in our city, but we know from the King County 2014 One Night Count that there are in fact over 3,100 people living outside unsheltered. That's up 14 percent from just last year, and nearly a thousand of those people are living in their cars.

What do we do with all the information that we are constantly hearing about homelessness?  Do we take it in? Does it touch us? Most importantly, does it motivate us to get involved in some way?  For me, I have been aware of this issue of homelessness my entire life; but I have been unaware of the person, the mother, the father and the child that is suffering through homelessness.  Why is that?  How could I be so disconnected from the simple obvious fact that homelessness involves real people with real suffering?

About four years ago, I met someone who made a change within me about this, and I'd like to share a little bit about that with you.  It starts in this gray house in the Fremont neighborhood, which was my architecture office. Out front is the Burke Gilman Trail that I rode my bicycle to work on, and below that is this bench along the ship canal, and it was on this bench that I began to meet a lot of people who were homeless. At the same time I was designing this new home, and one of the crazy things that was going on for me was that I was having these conversations on the bench with folks who had nothing to their name, and then just an hour later maybe, I would be in my conference room talking with my clients, and we were spending a great deal of money on just one home.

For me, I have been aware of this issue of homelessness my entire life; but I have been unaware of the person — the mother, the father and the child that is suffering through homelessness. Why is that?

So, with these two very contrasting worlds circling in my head, one morning coming to work I came across these two carts filled with art.  They were parked out in front of my office, and I don't know why I did this, but I got off my bike and I gently tapped the man who was sleeping there on the bottom and I said to him, “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, this man came in and introduced himself as Chiaka.  And as we were sitting for this cup of tea, he said to me, “Do you want to hear a children's book story that I'm writing?”  And then he pulled out about 20 pages of crumpled 8 and a half by 11 notebook paper, and I thought to myself, “Oh, my God, I am going to be here for an hour or more listening to this and I do not have time for this today.”  But as he began he was not so much reading it as he was performing it. Parts of it he was singing. At one point he got up and started to dance it.  And about three quarters of the way through, I just began to tear up. and then as he continued he started to cry, and then I was crying. And when he finished, I was so taken with the moment I just blurted out, “Why don’t you keep all of your art in the shed that I have outside.”  And then, a few minutes later, I said to him what I actually had wanted to say initially but was too afraid to say, and that is: “And, you can sleep there too.”

What I didn't know about Chiaka at that point was that he is this incredible artist.  In the morning he explained to me that he had been living on the streets of Seattle for the last ten years, and that he was extremely frustrated that he had not been able to sell his artwork, that he was mostly giving it away for food and for supplies.  And just in that moment I said: "Look, why don't I start a Chiaka Facebook page for you.  I'll just take photos of your art and I’ll put it on every day and we'll see if we can get a following."  And when I did this, almost immediately people began to make beautiful comments to him, telling him how incredible his art was, telling him how amazing he was, and his paintings began to sell.  This painting sold to a woman in Bellevue.

So one morning — this is about four months later — having done this nearly every day, taking photos of his art, I came into the office, and I read a comment on the Chiaka Facebook site from an 18-year-old woman that said. “Oh, my God, I think I just found our father!”  And then a comment from her 17-year-old sister that said, “Yes, this is our dad.”  And then Chiakas's mother and all his sisters commenting, pleading for him to come home to Pittsburgh. Telling him that they love him. Just at that moment, Chiaka walks into my office, and I say to him, “I have to read these comments to you.”  And when I do and I turn around to look at him, he's just streaming tears, and he says to me, “I have to go home.”

He had singularly changed the negative stereotype against the homeless for me.

His family buys him a plane ticket, and at 4:30 in the a.m. the next morning, I drive this man to SeaTac airport to say goodbye to somebody who had become a very close friend.  And as I'm driving back on the freeway, I just began to cry. I'm bawling, and I know a lot of you are thinking, "This guy is just a crybaby," and I am. But I'm crying — I’m crying because I realized what Chiaka had done for me.  He had singularly changed the negative stereotype against the homeless for me.

Through our friendship, he had shown me not only his talents but his kindness, his genuine kindness, and his struggles.  He is bipolar, suffers from depression and anger management, and through all of that he allowed me to get close to see how beautifully he was navigating his life.  I also began to think of all these other people that I was meeting along the canal on this bench.  It was clear to me that the negative stereotype against the homeless was also punishing them for whatever reason that they had been brought to homelessness.

This is Tania.  And Andy. And Joseph.  And Samantha and Lisa and Richard, and so many more. So that when I pulled up in front of my architecture office in Fremont that morning, I realized I needed to start another Facebook site, I was gonna call it Homeless in Seattle, and the sole purpose would be just to look closer. To use images and stories to get past the negative, to just see and appreciate the beauty of each person. 

This is Crystal.  I met Crystal when she was flying this sign.  She had just arrived not a week before in Seattle, she was fleeing an abusive boyfriend relationship from back east, and when I met her she was so very hopeful to get off the streets and into housing.  But as time went by and months passed, it was clear that she was spiraling downward.  One evening she called me at home and she said, "Rex, would you like to see where I'm living?"  And a half an hour later, I was walking up this dirt path between alder trees and blackberry bushes to come to where the 520 freeway touches the ground, and it was just getting dark as we both bent down to walk into the blackness underneath this freeway and a rush of fear overtook me.  When we got back to where her tent is, I said “Crystal, I have to go.”  We made our way back down the path to the street where she had stashed her bicycle, and I told her, “That scared the crap outta me!  I have a stream of sweat running down my back. I don't know how you do this, how you as a 23-year-old young woman sleep under that bridge up there in the darkness every night, alone." And then she looked away for a few moments, and when she looked back at me I could see in the street light that her eyes were welling up with tears, and she said,  “The physical and sexual abuse that I suffered at home while I was growing up was so horrible that nothing that could happen to me under that bridge could be worse.”

Every single person that is outside has a profound reason for being there. And in our busy, busy lives, we have passed over or 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. And in our busy, busy lives we have passed over or rushed past those profound reasons. We have given over this task of ending homelessness to government, nonprofits and religious institutions. Here's one more thing I would like for us all to know and to keep in our hearts, and that is 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. 

When I began to post more and more stories and photos of people that were homeless on the Homeless in Seattle Facebook site, what amazed me most was that a compassionate community formed around the lives being shared.  Comments began to appear: “What can I do to help” or “You said she was sleeping under a tree — does she need a sleeping bag or a tent?  What can I do?" And as word spread on the street that my architecture office was open, my office became a drop-in center.  And as the Homeless in Seattle Facebook site grew in numbers, my office also became a drop-off center.  Extremely nice people were coming in to donate whatever specific item that I had posted for, for those on the street in need.  And even more amazing to me was that parents, lots of parents, we're bringing their children in. There was this empathy education classroom thing going on in my office all the time.  

This is Ezra.  He brought in a year’s worth of saving coins to give to someone who was homeless.  This is Karina, she brought in 53 boxes of Girl Scout cookies that she and her Brownie troop collected for Homeless in Seattle to hand out to people who were homeless.  When Karina and her mom walked into my office, full with all these 53 boxes of cookies, Ronnie, who is chronically homeless, was in my office and he just yelled, “Oh my God, those are my favorite cookies in the whole world!”  And then Karina instinctually and beautifully just handed him a box of Thin Mints. Ronnie ripped the top of the box off, pulled out a row of cookies and downed them instantly, and Karina's eyes popped out as if to say, “I didn't know you were allowed to do that!” They became good friends. Here's Ronnie photo-bombing the pictures I was trying to take of Karina. 

Here's the thing. Over the last four years, I have seen an unending stream of kindness come into my office. Kindness that did not try to fix anyone, kindness that did not try to control the outcome of a donation; kindness just for kindness' sake. 

This is my friend Darwin. He was homeless for years.  He's in housing now, but awhile back he came to my office wet and he spent a day drying off and warming up. And at the end of the day, he stood up and he said, “I want to thank you for letting me be inside today.”  And then, as if you read my mind, he said, “And it's not because it's been raining all day long, it's because today I got to be a part of something normal.” He told me that he listened to me have these normal phone conversations all day long, that when my architecture client came in he listened to this normal back-and-forth architectural discussion.  He even noticed how he felt the UPS man had genuinely said to me, “Have a nice day.” And then Darwin went on to explain to me that when you live outside, it may appear that you are mingling with everyone else, but in fact you are not. You are separated out behind a giant plexiglass divider and that the only people that you get to talk with are those who are also living non-normal lives behind the plexiglass.  And what occurred to me in that moment was that, when we walk past someone who is suffering on the street without acknowledging them, we unknowingly create our own plexiglass

Their friendship over these last few years will not show up in any statistic on homelessness, but it should.

This is Jennifer visiting Darwin in his apartment. They became good friends when Jennifer dropped off donations at my office.  Their friendship over these last few years will not show up in any statistic on homelessness, but it should. It should because it is in these moments of acknowledgement, of connection, of friendship, of relationship that hope is created, and hope is everything for those who have nothing.

When you walk to work, smile or say hello, or make eye contact with somebody who is on the street. When you're coming down that freeway off-ramp and you see the person down at the end holding their sign, lower your window, to just say something kind to that person.

This is what I would like to leave all of you with, and that is that each and every one of you have this ability to make a profound and beautiful difference in the life of somebody who is homeless, for the homeless.  And when you do this, you will also make a profound and beautiful difference in your own life. 

This is Iona and David, Tim, Amanda, Randy, Mark, Anne, Andy, Richard, Rain, and so many more.  If you find the beauty in just one person who is homeless, you'll find that your plexiglass will lower, allowing you to just say hello. Thank you.

Rex Hohlbein

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Speaker Bio

Rex Hohlbein is a practicing architect in Seattle, Washington, working as the Principal of Rex Hohlbein Architects since 1987. Born and raised in Seattle, he studied at Washington State University, receiving his Bachelor of Architecture in 1982. In 2011 he began the Facebook community page "Homeless In Seattle" as a photo-journal project to build community awareness for those living without shelter and other basic needs. Read more

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